A Failure of Skepticism and Common Sense: Elon Musk's Skepticism Dampening Field

I continue to marvel at the nearly 100% positive press Elon Musk gets for his Hyperloop project.  For those who do not know, that is his concept for a high speed transportation system that can achieve high speeds in part because it is in a vacuum sealed tube.  Here is an update on the project and a picture of a prototype below:

So here is the story so far:  We know that the main barrier to high speed rail projects is that they are astonishingly expensive to build and maintain given the high cost of the right-of-way acquisition and building track to the very high standards necessary to support safe high speeds.   See for example California high speed rail, which is following some sort of crazed Moore's law where the cost estimate doubles every 18 months.

So we are going to fix the cost problem by ... requiring that the "track" be a perfectly smooth sealed pressure vessel under vacuum that is hundreds of miles long?  What about this approach isn't likely an order of magnitude more expensive than rail?  The prototype above which allows only one way travel cost about a billion dollars per mile to build.  And with a lot less functionality, as current prototypes envision 10-20 person sleds, one step beyond even the worst airline middle seat in terms of likely claustrophobia, and less than half the capacity of a bus.  It would take 15-20 of these sleds just to move the passengers from a typical aircraft.   Not to mention the fact that there is no easy way to do switching and a return trip requires a second parallel track.  All to reach speeds perhaps 20% higher than air travel.

Sure, I can be wrong.  For example, if the hyperloop handled grades better than a train, that would reduce costs somewhat.   But why does no one seem to ask obvious questions like this?   It's like Musk exudes some sort of skepticism dampening field around him (look at Tesla:  the company is fraught with issues and the stock price was falling until Musk did one of his hand-waving presentation specials at SXSW and the stock goes back up 30 points).  But if you read carefully, most of the hyperloop progress in the article linked is for getting handouts from government (something Musk excels at) including money for scoping studies of lines that will never exist and money for new buildings and workshops.




  1. J.l. Melcher:

    What's weird to me is that relatively short distance "loops" of this type are not discussed.

    For instance, an airport is necessarily remote from "downtown". The commute from baggage claim to transportation counter to parking lot to freeway interchange to crowded traffic to the second attempt at the correct exit to the THIRD attempt to get oriented correctly on the one-way city street for the entrance to the parking garage ...

    How 'bout a underground hyperloop from an existing airport to an existing, often historic, train station in the heart of the city? In Dallas, DFW to Union Station is (according to Google) a 23 minute drive over 21 miles and takes 1 hour 8 minutes by current mass transit. It's 12 miles -- 21 minutes from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson to Five Points by car, and 45 minutes by MARTA. Chicago sees a 14 mile, 30 minute, commute by car from O'Hare to their Union Station, over an hour by CTA's Blue Line. Instead the shortest loop Musk proposes is over 100 miles. Why not do the "demonstration" or "prototype" hyperloop on a route with a whole bunch of two way traffic between constantly trafficked hubs to the rest of the nation's transportation infrastructure? Even if we admit it's a stupid idea, Musk could set off a bidding war among major cities in the same way Bezos now has cities bidding on the merely administrative office building needed for a remote Amazon headquarters. (Why such a building is to be considered a "plum" in any city's pudding is a complete mystery to me. Given the choice of idiocy, I'd rather have my commuter length hyperloop.)

    The (presumably) successful New York City subway system was built on the strength of the lie entrepreneur Alfred Beach perpetrated over the city government and the political powers of Tammany Hall (but I repeat myself)


    "He applied for a permit from the Tammany Hall city government, and after being denied, decided to build the line in secrecy, in an attempt to show that subterranean transit was practical. (He actually did receive a permit to built a pneumatic package delivery system, originally of two small tunnels from Warren St. to Cedar St., later amended to be one large tunnel, to "simplify construction" of what he really intended to build.) The Beach tunnel was constructed in only 58 days ... about 300 feet in all. "
    The demonstration project operated for about 3 years.

  2. The_Big_W:

    You kind of get to the cost issues in the piece. Hyperloop isn't competing against trains, its competing against planes. Mechanically it is far less complex than planes are. However the right of way issue is one thing planes don't struggle with (the airspace is free to use for them).

    As far as offramp and switching, they have plans and designs for that.

    The key driver and the economic potential to win lies in Hyperloop being able to deliver a higher volume of people places at a faster speed than planes.

    Not sure they can do that. But thats the economic usability hill they have to climb.

  3. ErikTheRed:

    Not excusing the awful cronyism that is Team Musk, but I suspect that they intend hyperloops to be underground. Fits quite well with the tunnel boring venture they're playing with. That being said, they do seem to be incredibly complex for what they're trying to accomplish. Trying to maintain a vacuum over a long distance is an interesting engineering challenge, especially when you have things like earthquakes.

  4. ErikTheRed:

    I agree that it's competing against planes. As mentioned in my other comment I think that they eventually intend for these to be underground, thus avoiding the right-of-way issues. In that light, this scales far better than air traffic... until the first terrorist attack puts TSA incompetence in front of every terminal...

  5. Andrew_M_Garland:

    All the problems of deep space travel, bought down to the surface of the planet, such that you can travel about the speed of a bullet. Many ways to fail catastrophically.

    I would never get on one.


    Search YouTube Hyperlooop won't work

  6. C078342:

    I get a charge out of people being hyped by this and thinking it a novel idea --- search "project tubeflight." Same concept being researched by Prof Joseph Foa at Rennselaer Polytechnic Inst in the later 1960's. I was a student there and was instructed by many of the contribution researchers.

  7. SteveM:

    I believe it was Mish but it might even have been this blog. "Musk is the master of yelling SQUIRREL!!!"

  8. AtlantaDude:

    Musk is a genius. He has found a way to harness a) Silicon Valley's hyper-optimism about tech and b) government's hyper-optimism about public transit projects to create a cash sucking machine 100 times more powerful than the vacuum pulling those sleds.

  9. glenn.griffin3:

    So you can travel at the speed of a jet airplane, even?

  10. Philip Ngai:

    It should be easy for hyperloop to handle grades better than a cargo train. The power to weight ratio will be much better.

  11. Daniel Barger:

    Elon Musk is perhaps the greatest con man of our age. And his favorite target is politicians because he knows they have access to nearly unlimited resources....called OPM (Other Peoples Money). This hyperloop concept is a giant rat hole to throw $$$ at with people like Musk et.al siphoning off large portions of it. And it will NEVER be feasible if for no other reason than any idiot with a rifle can put holes in the structure rendering it useless.

  12. Andrew_M_Garland:

    Musk claims that it will travel at 800 MPH. The speed of sound is about 750 MPH. That would be faster than civilian jets, but slower than the Concorde and military jets.

    Most of my comment comes from the interesting linked video.

  13. kidmugsy:

    Yes, and Russians!!!!!!

  14. Q46:

    ‘We know that the main barrier to high speed rail projects is that they are astonishingly expensive...’

    Maybe, but... in France, the European poster child for State-run ‘efficient’ railways and high speed trains, the planned extension of a TGV line to Limoges has been cancelled and the long proposed extension from Bordeaux to Toulouse is under re-evaluation.

    Why? Construction cost? Nope... decreasing passenger numbers on all rail services and TGV lines in particular despite nice trains, low fares and SNCF is just losing more and more money every year. France even restricts long distance coach services to protect the railways.

    People prefer private transport aka cars, not public transport, and as people become more affluent and cars relatively cost less now than before, more people can afford them.

    Railways are 200 year old technology. They were originally invented to haul freight which they can do 24/24, 7/7, passengers were an afterthought in the day when there were no decent roads and stage coach travel was arduous and expensive and the alternative for most people was to walk.

    Passenger rail has only survived because of massive State intervention.

    Time to say adieu.

  15. Philip Ngai:

    737s will usually cruise around 515 MPH. So 800 is a significant increase.

  16. hewler:

    This is my favorite new mass transport idea - https://www.wired.com/story/flight-rail-vectorr-atmospheric-railway-train/
    Like hyperloop (a little) but cheaper and safer...also slower though.

  17. C078342:

    Just how does excavating and burying tubes avoid right of ways issues. You don't just dig up peoples property to bury these tubes.

  18. James:

    Airports are not necessarily remote from downtown. Phoenix Sky Harbor is only a few miles away from the center of downtown, for example.

  19. J.l. Melcher:

    You are absolutely right. Many airports are near city centers.

    Some are farther away. You're point, I take it, is that such pairing differ.

    It would be useful to have a table of airports, ranked by size in passengers per day, that compares the airport to the "city" or area served, by resident population, with the miles between terminals and "down town"

    The ideal choice for any transportation system would the line in the table that shows the longest miles between the largest sum of passengers and residents.

    What city and airport would you suggest? Not Phoenix, I know. But not, then, Chicago or Dallas? Where?

  20. obloodyhell:

    No no no, they'll build it underground.

    Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's the ticket... underground.

  21. obloodyhell:

    Not enough to give a shit about the ridiculous expense, it's not.

  22. obloodyhell:

    MY favorite mass transport idea?

    GIVE IT UP. No one wants freaking mass transport.

    If I need to get there FAST, then planes do fine. If I want to get there with my car, then, in about 10-odd years, you'll join an "autotrain" -- a self-organizing set of automobiles drafting off one another at close range -- using self-driving cars. The ONE aspect of the self-driving car that CAN be accomplished fairly quickly is that one. Interstates are well-controlled, well-defined, and the issues with self-driving are almost trivial.

  23. obloodyhell:

    Yeah, because it's so much cheaper to build a hyperloop than to just add another engine or two... :-/

  24. obloodyhell:

    I believe they think they'll be deep enough to avoid digging holes, they're talking about tunneling, not digging and burying. Still some right of way questions to settle there, but not the same kind. Curious what happens if the tunnelers encounter some ancient burial ground, cave system, and/or a rich vein of some mineral.

  25. obloodyhell:

    The smarter effort would be to build a ring which was tangent to the airport and a variety of different suitable points which the airport could disperse passengers to, as well as pick them up from.

    Of course, what happens when someone slips a bomb on board one of these "shuttles"...?

    Right. Suddenly it takes 20 min to get onto one at any onboarding location, thanks to the TSA. Yeah, that'll work.

    The whole concept is just stupid. For every "good" idea it might solve, there are a half-dozen which pop up to neutralize its benefits.

  26. C078342:

    My understanding, and I admit I'm not a lawyer, is that if you have mineral rights, your claim is to the center of the earth. Agreeably, apparently mineral rights and property rights are 2 different things. Anyway, it seems not right that one could tunnel under my property for commercial gain without paying me something for it.

  27. Philip Ngai:

    Building it is quite a different issue and I agree I expect it to be much more expensive.