There has been quite a bit of hype over the last couple of days about the Hyperloop proposal being pushed by Elon Musk. It’s been quite interesting to see the different reactions that have come out about the project.
Billionaire inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled his design for a super-fast transport system that carries passengers in pressurised tubes at near-supersonic speeds.
Musk, who heads electric carmaker Tesla Motors and private space exploration firm SpaceX, released a 57-page document describing the ‘Hyperloop’ project today.
It would allow passengers to cover the 614 kilometres between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes.
“Hyperloop consists of a low pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube,” the document said.
“The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift.”
Musk has said he has no plans to build the system but offered the “open source design” to allow others to pursue a venture.
The system is capable of speeds up to 1,220 kilometers (760 miles) an hour, or Mach 0.91.
Musk has called the system a cross between a “Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table.”
Many in the Tech community are quite excited by the idea, perhaps partly due to the sci-fi nature of it but also that Elon has a history of making seemingly impossible and slightly futuristic businesses work. He is the founder of both Space X and also of Tesla Motors - the maker of the electric car that Gerry Brownlee had a spin in while on a trip to the US – while previous businesses have included Paypal. He’s built a reputation of doing what people think can’t be done and so when he says he is going to change transport, people understandably listen. On the other side of the ledger are the transport community who seem to have taken a fairly critical approach to the announcement, looking at the proposal in quite some level of detail.
First let’s start with the reason Elon is pushing this idea. There have been talks of building high speed rail in California since the 1980′s and progress on getting it built has been fairly slow thanks to the wonders of politics. Like in NZ anything to do with rail can take decades to get signed off while many large roading projects get rubber stamped without scrutiny. As work on the proposal has progressed, so has the cost and it is now expected to cost up to US $68 billion which is an absolutely scary amount of money. There are a number of places that the train also won’t be as fast as it could otherwise be due to using existing lower speed tracks in a bid to save some money. The Hyperloop proposal seeks to address both the speed and cost issues.
I’m not going to go through all of the issues with the proposal as many others have done that already but I will highlight some of them below.
This post from the blog Stop and Move has an excellent breakdown of some of the non engineering issues with the proposal.
I was excited to hear about the proposal, as there had been some hype attached to it. Elon Musk is a serious guy – founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Pay-Pal – so when he says he has something big, it makes sense to listen.
The headlines note the following facts:
- SF to LA in 35 minutes
- Cost under $6 billion
- Something that could be built within the next decade
Fantastic right? The future is here!
Problem is, taking a look at the documents that came with the announcement, it seems to be a fantastic joke. Those claims do not appear to be true – his own proposal doesn’t even get close to supporting them.
The author then goes on to look at some of the non engineering issues with the proposal, these are summarised below.
- The project only goes from the northern edge of LA to the western side of the San Francisco Bay area. That leaves almost an extra hour of travelling on each side to reach the centre of LA or San Francisco making the HSR project actually a bit faster and a single seat ride.
- It is getting through the urban areas that are the extremely expensive parts and this proposal avoids that by simply only going to the edges. The cheapest part of the HSR project is the bits in the Central Valley of California which is actually costed at less than $10b so the price isn’t that different to the Hyperloop option.
- The proposal assumes they can just install an elevated structure alongside the interstate without any objection from locals. Built into the HSR proposal are costs to deal with court disputes and property purchases.
- The Hyperloop only connects San Francisco and LA (well the edges) but nothing in-between whereas the HSR proposal passes through many of the smaller cities along the way like Palmdale, Bakersfield and Fresno. The areas being served are generally the ones who happened to vote in favour of the HSR proposal in a referendum.
- Bureaucracy and legal battles are likely to result in the project taking much much longer than the decade worth of construction proposed by Elon.
Other blogs like this one go into some more technical details about the proposal.
In short it seems that there are a lot of elements in the Hyperloop proposal that simply don’t add up and even if it is technically possible it may not be as easy as has been suggested. Many see it as perhaps an attempt to derail the often controversial high speed rail project more than anything else. So while the idea is very cool looking, it does unfortunately seem more like loopy hype than a Hyperloop.