Maybe Elon Musk is stretching too far with the Hyperloop concept? The idea, a system of tubes containing low atmospheric pressure air, through which electrically driven capsules ride at supersonic speeds, was just unveiled today, and already there are naysayers. I think there’s many who hear Musk as over-confident and boasting and just waiting for the big failure, and see the Hyperloop as another such instance. But those people might ponder something .. PayPal .. Tesla Motors .. SpaceX .. Solar City .. all highly successful companies, with this man at the head of each. At the same time, while the Hyperloop design document seems to me well thought out, I see that it’s just the beginning of what should be several years of engineering before anything can be built, and of course they might discover during the design process that it simply can’t work as envisioned.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some naysaying. But before we do, I want to point to some news articles I’ve written on this:
Tesla’s Elon Musk show Hyperloop, offering 1/2 hour travel between SF and LA -A writeup of the system and announcement
Innov8 Transport thanks Elon Musk’s attention-getting Hyperloop design – Another company with a vaguely similar design, who says Elon Musk met them the morning of the day he announced that he would announce the Hyperloop system
41 Years Ago, A Scientist Explained Why Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is Doomed – (Business Insider) Says that a scientist named R.M.Salter dreamed up a very similar system 41 years ago, only to get to the conclusion that the real problem getting such a system built is political. For example the English Channel Tunnel was first dreamed up in Napoleons time, could plausibly have been built much earlier than it actually was, but was delayed for decades or centuries because of politics.
One clear problem with the Hyperloop is Musk’s expectation he could get the access rights to run it down the middle of I-5. That’s State owned land that has some Federal money tied to it (it’s a Federal Interstate Highway), so to dedicate the median strip of such a highway to a service operated by a private company, wellll…. how well is that going to work?
What Musk said during last weeks conference call to go over Tesla Motors results is that – he has two very demanding jobs right now: SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Both are in early stages of development and are companies that stand to become really big players in Industry. This and his family life are clearly demanding huge amounts of attention from him. He obviously could not add yet another huge demand on his time, and clearly launching Hyperloop would be a big demand. So therefore, what he said in the conference call is that he will not launch Hyperloop at this time, but is putting the design out there for others to study and evaluate. If nobody else takes the Hyperloop idea and launches a company, then in a few years he might take a stab at it.
Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Really an Alternative to HSR? -The guy who writes the California High Speed Rail blog took on the Hyperloop concept back in mid-July, long before todays details were released. His critique of Hyperloop was therefore rather uninformed, and some of the issues he raises are answered in the design document.
The deeper issue is one of timing. The CAHSR guy quotes Rod Diridon, executive director of Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, talking about the length of time that will be required for activities like “land-use approval, funding, development to construction” and predicting it would take 25 years or more before Hyperloop could be built. In the meantime California is expected to see a huge influx of population, and high speed rail is needed long before a date 25 years from now.
Putting it another way – the demand for perfect is often the enemy of the good. High Speed Rail is a known technology, that’s already developed, and getting it running in California is just a matter of installing equipment (and spending a lot of money). Developing Hyperloop means designing a new system from scratch, and who knows what kind of difficulties will be found during the process?
This one chart is rather key to understanding why Hyperloop could be a technically better solution:
Vastly less energy per passenger per journey. Plus, the system’s energy will come from solar panels mounted on the top of the Hyperloop tubes rather than being purchased from power companies. Oh so very extremely cool.
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