Few are gifted with the power of foresight. We've all heard the story of the producer who turned down the Beatles (although to be fair, guitar music was
sort of on the way out...) or the guy who predicted that flying would never get off the ground.
So it is not without some trepidation that I make my own bold prediction: Hyperloop probably won't happen
. Certainly not in the immediate future, anyway. It's a visionary idea but not an implementable one, at least not as conceived here.
The first thing the Internet criticized about Hyperloop was safety—everyone started worrying that terrorists would target it. But that's a pretty lousy reason to not build something. Heck, we still build bridges and skyscrapers and subways and all manner of other potential terrorist targets. This sort of "if you build it, they will come" logic results in stagnation, and as long as we can collectively avoid it, there shouldn't be any problem with respect to Hyperloop.
Next, people jumped on the physics of Hyperloop, claiming it would be too fast or that an accident would result in massive pileups. Of course, the calculations we've seen are just preliminaries, but the G forces resulting from going from 1200 km/hour to a standstill in thirty seconds aren't that bad; it'd feel more like a roller coaster than a death ride. And so if one pod broke down, the rest could feasibly stop in half a minute with few adverse effects. The quality of this system would depend on the braking system and the overall computer control mechanisms, two things we haven't heard much about yet from Musk. But I'm confident these issues will get worked out as the idea evolves.
Now Dr. Drang has a few qualms
about the engineering behind Hyperloop, and many people have made similar accusations over the past few days. I'm not an engineer so I'll stay out of it, but it's clear that the proposal is at the very least contentious.
The third problem—and this is a damning one, I'm afraid—is the price. Elon Musk has projected costs just under 7 billion dollars; compare to the $70-billion hig-speed rail project California is currently investigating. The pricing sounds attractive but it fails to hold up to scrutiny. It's been widely reported that a certain 100-mile stretch of land around Fresno will cost up to seven billion dollars (some towns are understandably very picky about who builds on their land and will extract a high price), which is more than Hyperloop's total cost. So it's clear that Musk is hoping to use government land for free, or at least on the cheap. Whether that will end up happening is another matter, one I'll address later on.
The other issue with pricing is that the sort of steel tubing he's looking for will cost much more than he's anticipating. If you're not convinced, take a look at how much money oil companies pour into pipelines and compare with Musk's figures. A bit less believable.
So this project will cost more than 7 billion dollars. That's not the end of the world, you might say; the rail project will still be more expensive. True, but it's already got the funding allocated. The creaky wheels of government have finally turned enough to set things in motion, and Musk decides to unveil Hyperloop now
? Perhaps this was unavoidable on Musk's part, but it's horrible timing. I don't expect the government to gear into reverse and go with Musk's prototype, stereotypes about bumbling bureaucrats be damned. And so Musk's possible government deal looks a lot less likely given the timeline of events in California.
From a public transit perspective, Hyperloop runs into a few problems too. Pods are set to leave stations every two minutes, with peak/rush-hour headway of 30 seconds. I doubt that twenty-eight people can exit a pod, let twenty-eight other people get in and sit down in under thirty seconds. Plus there will be security and long lines. Not to say that this entirely ruins the project's chances of viability, but it will slow down the system. Thus the maximum load capacity of 3200-odd people at peak seems a bit high.
This will in turn affect ticket pricing (ceteris paribus
, fewer passengers implies higher ticket pricing), which decreases the attractiveness of the entire proposition. A $20 ticket sounds nice, but that cost would have to double along with headway time in order to pay off. And you can bet that airlines will do their best to keep this from production, since even a $50 Hyperloop ticket is a lot cheaper (and faster) than a SF–LA plane ride.
To be fair, Hyperloop is an open-source alpha. Musk hasn't committed the money to the project yet, and nobody's manufacturing pods or custom tubing. There's certainly room for growth. But as it stands now, I'm a little wary of the idea, and I don't think it will go anywhere just yet.