Hyperloop

The long wait is over.

Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop” has probably been the most-hyped, most-eagerly awaited technological breakthrough since the Segue scooter, and it’s finally here. Surprise: it’s pretty much the most over-hyped technological breakthrough since the Segue too.

The details were announced in a Businessweek exclusive article, scooping Musk’s own website. Frankly I’m more entranced by the “Videos You May Like” promo for a spot about Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco on the same page–and I don’t even like Taco Bell.

hyl

What’s it all about? Apparently, it’s a waffle fried into the shape of a taco shell and then filled with sausage and scrambled eggs. Oh, you mean Hyperloop? Sorry.

Hyperloop is intended as an alternative to high-speed rail. Its biggest advantage over rail, as best I can tell, is that because it’s an elevated system, it could be built alongside (or over) existing freeway rights-of-way, solving the problem of acquiring new railroad rights-of-way. That undoubtedly plays into his estimate that it could be built for roughly a tenth of the cost of the planned San Diego to Sacramento high-speed rail link.

As far as the actual mechanism goes, think in terms of an inverted air hockey game: The cars would suck in air and blow it out through holes in the bottom, pushing them up from the ground. Or rather, from the floor of the tube. By enclosing the entire system in a tube, Musk figures that air turbulence can be largely eliminated; additionally, air pressure can be reduced, lowering wind resistance. Propulsion would be via electromagnetic pulse, essentially a scaled-up version of the systems currently used to accelerate roller coasters. (There is an emergency brake, apparently. I don’t see the details anywhere–I’m sure they’re buried in the 57 page proposal somewhere–but I’m guessing that it’s a way for the cars to blast air against the direction of travel, rather than a mechanical, friction-based system–trying to engineer a friction brake that can safely stop something moving at 800 miles an hour seems dubious at best.) Get this: the whole thing can be powered by solar energy supplied by panels integrated into the tubes!

So there you go: Hyperloop is essentially a giant straw running a straight line between two cities no more than 1,000 miles apart, and the passengers are the equivalent of the spit-balls being fired out of the straw.

I know I sound dismissive, but honestly, I’d love to see it get built. I really don’t have any need to travel from SF to LA in half an hour, but Hyperloop is just too cool an idea to pass up. Musk’s Space-X and Tesla credits suggest that if it can be built, he’s the guy to do it, but there are just too many problems with the idea as presented for me to really get behind it:

  • I’m skeptical about Musk’s estimates for the cost to build the system and for the cost to ride it. This is brand-new technology, and until there’s some practical experience with it, any sort of cost estimates are optimistic at best, wishful thinking at worst.
  • The nod toward seismic safety sounds only slightly ahead of the Bay Bridge’s approach. Enough said about that for any construction near the Hayward and San Andreas Faults.
  • The proposal doesn’t spend nearly enough attention on the passengers. As one commentator has pointed out, the lack of bathrooms in the cars will be a turn-off for a lot of people. The proposal calls for cars to be departing every two minutes. Has Musk flown on a commercial flight recently? Unless you’ve got a lot of cars loading at once, with some really complicated switching to get them into the main tube, you’re pretty much screwed on the departures. Forget loading the proposed 28 passengers in less than fifteen minutes; 30 minutes seems more realistic when you consider the realities of children, oversize luggage, and federally-mandated safety briefings (“The seat belt works just like the one in your car. If the tube breaks, expect to go skimming across the landscape like a flat rock on a pond before you disintegrate into flaming rubble.”). It’s not like a subway where they can just walk in and stand for half an hour; they’ve got to stow their bags and sit down.
  • Even if all of the problems are worked out, there’s still one overriding problem with Hyperloop as an alternative to fast rail: California’s rail project is already in motion. There’s no way any government-funded project would put itself on hold for a couple of years while Musk works out the bugs in Hyperloop. The best he could hope for would be for both systems to be built, and then have whichever one proves less popular be supported by government subsidies indefinitely.

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