The Economy Hub
9:51 PM EDT, August 16, 2013
Visionary technological proposals generally trace a life cycle of three stages. First comes the thrill of the unveiling (the "gee-whiz" stage); then there's the hard work of research and development to convert rough sketches into practical form; finally comes the crash, when the original dream has to confront cold, hard reality.
Let's hope there aren't any passengers aboard when Elon Musk's Hyperloop hits stage three.
If you've been a sentient creature during the last week, you've heard something about the Hyperloop. The proposed transit system would carry 6 million passengers per year between Los Angeles and San Francisco at astonishingly minimal cost and speeds high enough to reduce the trip to 35 minutes. It's the brainchild of electric-car and spaceflight entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is irked that nothing better exists to meet his commuting needs between those two metropolises.
But as often happens when talented hard-chargers pursue their personal dreams, he may be answering the wrong question.
The Hyperloop has garnered scads of fawning publicity since Musk unveiled a 57-page outline last week. So has Musk, which may be the point. He's being praised for Big-Idea thinking, for discarding those 19th and 20th century transport technologies (cars, trains) to come up with something worthy of the 21st. He's lauded especially for proposing a way to circumvent the grubby regional politics that have ballooned the cost of the current answer to the L.A.-S.F. transport riddle, California's high-speed rail project, to $68 billion.
To hear Musk tell it, a suitable mass transit system would have to be safer, faster, cheaper, more convenient and more earthquake resistant than the alternatives of planes, cars and trains. The Hyperloop, he says, is "the right solution."
It's curious that he comes to that conclusion, because judging from his own proposal, the Hyperloop would be none of those things. There's no evidence that it would be cheaper than the high-speed rail project, and reason to believe it would cost more; it certainly couldn't be built for the $6-billion price tag Musk claims. As for the real issues of politics and technology that Musk waves away, in the real world they don't go away quietly.
The Hyperloop has two things going for it: the notion of going between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a half-hour in capsules propelled on cushions of air, which sounds awfully snazzy; and the fact that Elon Musk proposed it. But it's not clear that the first is an especially pressing need, except for people like Elon Musk. As for Musk himself, he's a serial entrepreneur with an impressive record that includes PayPal, the electric-car company Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, a space launch company.
But whether his skill at synthesizing existing technologies into new businesses in those fields translates into solving a problem of public infrastructure on this scale is unproven. One hint that he may be playing outside his comfort zone comes from his description of the Hyperloop as a "cross between Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table."
Concorde? The Anglo-French supersonic jet took some 20 years to get off the drawing boards. It came in at 15 times its original cost estimates, couldn't carry enough passengers to operate profitably and was mothballed after a catastrophic crash in 2000 underscored its myriad technological flaws. If that's the model for the Hyperloop, I'll stay home, thanks.
There's something mischievous about Musk's Hyperloop. He says it's not something he'd be willing to build himself, which raises the question of who he thinks should build it, and how the economics would change if it were a public project rather than the blue-sky musing of a Silicon Valley billionaire. In truth, the Hyperloop plan looks less like a starting point for a practical project than a road map for what Elon Musk would do if he could operate freely at the level of his own self-esteem.
"I would assume away all sorts of constraints if I were king," says James E. Moore II, director of the transportation engineering program at USC. In this case, "the institutional and economic barriers are so significant it's unlikely to come to fruition."
Numerous physicists, engineers and transportation experts have taken aim at Musk's white paper in the week since its unveiling, and many more undoubtedly will. It's proper to highlight a few of those issues.
For one thing, Musk's route map doesn't quite get passengers to San Francisco or Los Angeles; it stops at the East Bay, dodging the question of how much it would cost to build a bridge or tunnel crossing. (Almost certainly more than $6 billion alone.) At the south end, his map stops somewhere in the West Valley, which can be an hour short of downtown — on a good day.
There's no discussion in Musk's paper of the operation and maintenance cost of a system that will have to maintain low pressure in a 700-mile pneumatic tube at all times, or of the cost of security to keep ill-doers or vandals from damaging the tube, which would be suspended on overhead pylons for most of the route. That's a more important issue than it is for an open rail line; the physical tolerances for a closed-loop system carrying hundreds or thousands of passengers at a time in capsules at 700 mph are so tight that any breach, or even a dent, could spell disaster.
Musk's paper is festooned with magic asterisks to cover many existing engineering questions. "This is where things get tricky," he writes at one point. The result is a plan with a veneer of just enough detail — graphs, maps, mathematical equations and all that jazz — to impress news pundits, so they don't notice the murkiness under the surface.
That's not surprising, because Musk is a master of exploiting the public's limited attention span. Tesla Motors, his electric-car firm, is a perfect example. One of the few things people know about the company is that it repaid its $465-million federal green-energy loan nine years early in March, which makes it seem like a roaring success.
What they may not know is the money came from a stock and bond issue, not from operating income; or that the securities were sold on the strength of a reported quarterly profit Tesla achieved only through an accounting trick not permitted of bigger and more established companies. By conventional accounting standards, it's still in the red. Tesla certainly has gotten closer to the grail of mass-marketing electric cars than other companies, but it's not there yet; it's a measure of Musk's marketing savvy that so many people think he's closer than he may really be.
There's no question that seemingly insurmountable technical challenges often can be solved, given time and money. But the time can be a century and the money trillions. So the question becomes: should they be solved, or should other alternatives be examined? That's the truly important question the Hyperloop doesn't address.
Musk's goal plainly is to attack the high-speed rail project. But since the Hyperloop is the only alternative he's proposing, Musk is pursuing not a big idea, but a small idea. The Hyperloop might solve a problem for the limited percentage of people who need to go between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a half-hour, but it leaves everybody else behind.
Indeed, one of the flaws in the high-speed rail project that the Hyperloop replicates is that no one has a very good idea of the real demand for service on that corridor.
"We know very little about transit patterns within the state," says David Brownstone, an expert on transportation economics at UC Irvine. "It would be nice if we slowed down and tried to figure out how many people are traveling from point A to point B."
Then there's the question of how to get passengers to their destinations once they reach the terminus. That's less of a problem in the Bay Area than the Southland, but there is as yet no solution to moving people en masse from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, Irvine, or LAX.
Musk's paper treats the need for some rapid transit service between L.A. and San Francisco as a given, but that question has never received the debate it deserves.
"Give me $68 billion and I can solve a lot of problems in California that are more pressing — secondary and primary education, prison overcrowding, pollution," says C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley. "I'm not sure that giving highly paid professionals a transportation subsidy is the best use."
None of this is to say that Musk did wrong in putting a futuristic mass transit plan on the table. Only that this particular plan is so narrow and self-interested that one wonders why he took the time. If he's got that much energy and creativity to spare, it would be great to see him try to solve a public crisis that's really important.
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