The Hyperloop: 4 awkward truths

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on August 15th, 2013

Ah, the Hyperloop! Now that the gesticulation has died down a little bit, what can we say?

1. It’s A Clever Solution To A Serious Problem With Bullet Trains

First of all: sorry, California bullet train fans, but Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is a very clever design. You see, here’s the thing about high-speed trains: what now limits their speed isn’t the power of the locomotive or the metal of the rails. It’s air friction.

Transportation nerds have long had a fantasy/answer for this: the Vactrain. Put the train in a sealed vacuum tube, and remove air friction. If you run the train through magnetic levitation, as some trains today are already run, there is no friction at all, and the train can be as fast as anything. A Vactrain could conceivably make the trip between Beijing and New York last two hours.

The problem is that building a giant vacuum tube, perfectly sealed, for hundreds, let alone thousands, of miles, is an astonishing engineering challenge.

Between regular high speed trains and Vactrain, Musk has come up with a very clever and elegant solution: instead of a total vacuum in the tube, just have low air pressure, the kind that can be achieved with standard industrial pumps. Much easier to do. No New York-Beijing in 2 hours, but San Francisco-Los Angeles in 35 minutes is achievable, and that’s already not too bad.

2. It’s Never Going To Get Built (At Least Not In America)

The problem is not engineering. It’s not even politics, in the traditional sense, although that is a problem too. Politicians are not the type of creatures to wake up one day and say “Whoops! Looks like our boondoggle is enormously expensive, wasteful and useless! Let’s take a chance on this new and innovative idea instead!” And California politics are even more dysfunctional than American politics at large.

But that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is NIMBYism. People don’t like to have their houses taken from them so a train can be built. Or to have one next to their house. And they like to sue. And America, may God continue to bless her, protects the rights of property owners to the hilt.

If you want to build high speed train (or a Hyperloop) you need to take down people’s houses and go through their yards. In European countries which have weaker property rights, it’s easier for the government to seize the lands to build high speed rail lines. They do it all the time, in fact.

The reason there’s no high speed train between Boston to Washington DC isn’t because the government can’t raise the money. It’s because hundreds of homeowners would sue and it would never get built.

Musk thinks he can get around this, because the Hyperloop would be silent, and above ground. But if he thinks this will prevent the lawsuits, he truly does not understand the elemental force that is NIMBYism.

3. It’s Going To Be Expensive

Another great advantage of the Hyperloop, Musk says, is that it’s cheap. Musk floated a $6 billion budget. I don’t mean to say that Musk is overoptimistic, but he is. It’s not a problem of his. It’s a problem of life. Large civil engineering projects are, by definition, very complicated. They rarely happen on budget.

And one kind of large civil engineering project that is never, ever, ever on budget is the prototype kind. These cost overruns are impossible to predict, because they arise due to problems that, by definition, are unforeseen (otherwise they would have been accounted for).

There’s no doubt that Musk’s accounting of $6 billion is sincere. But it’s simply not possible that this will be anything like the final number. It might be $10 billion. It might be $100 billion. But it’s definitely not going to be $6 billion.

4. It’s Good, But Not Great

As Musk writes himself, the Hyperloop only really makes sense over relatively short distances. Because it travels under low pressure and not a vacuum, it’s not as fast as an actual Vactrain. Over long distances, planes are still better.

And that’s ultimately what’s sad about Hyperloop. It’s a very clever take on the Vactrain concept, and a more easily achievable one. And that’s great. But don’t let anyone tell you that the Hyperloop is a game changer of transportation, because it is not.

Now, if Elon Musk started a Vactrain company? That would be impressive.