Elon Musk* of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX fame has finally published details of his Hyperloop (large PDF) idea, a couple of months after Musk described the idea as a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table”. The idea is somewhere between amazing and ridiculous, which means it may or may not be genius. The basic premise is you build an elevated tube with lower pressure inside and shot pods that levitate on an air cushion for friction-less travel. With this technology, top speeds are supposed to reach 760 mph and shortening travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 35 minutes at supposedly a fraction of the cost of high speed rail: $6 billion for Hyper Loop between the cities v $53 billion for HSR. Robert Cruickshank at California High Speed Rail Blog has cautious optimism.
It seems the media is pretty credulous and not great at judging the technical merits of the proposal. I’m not qualified to do so, either, so I’ve outsourced my analysis to those who may know more. The Washington Posts’s Wonkblog argues the Hyperloop is likely more expensive than Elon Musk has assumed:
What’s more, California’s high-speed rail project has had to grapple with the high costs of acquiring more than 1,100 parcels of land, often from farmers resistant to sell. The Hyperloop would try to minimize this problem by propping the whole system up on pylons, shrinking its footprint, but it can’t escape the land problem entirely. As Alexis Madrigal points out, Musk’s proposal seems to assume it’s possible to buy up tens of thousands of acres in California for a mere $1 billion. That’s awfully optimistic.
Note that the California HSR project has paid out nearly $700 million just in legal challenges.
Pedestrian Observations, a urbanism blog written by a mathematician hassome interesting analysis:
The [Hyperloop] that is as expensive as California HSR and takes as long door-to-door is also very low-capacity. The capsules are inexplicably very short, with 28 passengers per capsule. The proposed headway is 30 seconds, for 3,360 passengers per direction per hour. A freeway lane can do better: about 2,000 vehicles, with an average intercity car occupancy of 2. HSR can do 12,000 passengers per direction per hour: 12 trains per hour is possible, and each train can easily fit 1,000 people (the Tokaido Shinkansen tops at 14 tph and 1,323 passengers per train).
“When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” Musk wrote in his overview of Hyperloop plans. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
I’m skeptical about the price tag, and a bit worried that it would not be as comfortable as it first appears. But you never know. Musk as innovated in private space travel and electric cars, both areas I would have never guess he would have been successful. Maybe he’s the right person to disrupt intercity travel?
What are your thoughts on the hyperloop?
* Full disclosure: I worked for Musk at PayPal in the early 2000s.