Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Fantasy Ignores the Laws of Science—And Politics
When Elon Musk first described his supersonic “Hyperloop” vacuum-tube transport system in 2013, he proposed a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line that would replace a busy air route. The quasi-train, speeding almost friction-free through a vacuum tube underground, would hit speeds of 750 miles per hour, and transport 7.4 million people per year in each direction. Each “pod” (i.e. train car) would hold a minimum of 28 passengers and three cars, and trains would depart every two minutes. It was, if nothing else, audacious, and it seemed like Musk meant to do it, or at least to try.
His 58-page outline of the project laid out big plans and perfect comfort for passengers on the 350-mile subway ride. “The interior of the capsule is specifically designed with passenger safety and comfort in mind,” Musk wrote. “The seats conform well to the body to maintain comfort during the high speed accelerations experienced during travel. Beautiful landscape will be displayed in the cabin and each passenger will have access their own personal entertainment system.”
But in 2017, while speaking about transportation at a California conference, Musk reversed himself. After releasing plans for subway-style urban mass transit systems for Los Angeles and Chicago, and claiming he had “verbal govt approval” for a New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-D.C. line, he described sharing space with other humans while traveling as what a reporter described as “kind of icky.”
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks,” inveighed Musk at the 2017 Neural Information Processing Systems Conference:
Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end?. . . And it doesn’t go all the time. . . And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, okay, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.
Yet Musk hasn’t given up on the hyperloop idea. He keeps trying to revive it, even after he finds little interest from the states and municipalities that would be the entities buying such a system. The Boring Company, which Musk started to pursue his pipe dream, continues to push some version of underground mass transit relying on vacuum-tube technology that would be prohibitively expensive if not scientifically infeasible. In April of this year, Musk announced he had secured $675 million in venture financing for the Boring Company, putting its value at $5.7 billion. The new funding, the company says, would allow them to solve traffic, beautify cities, and enable point-to-point transportation. “Defeating traffic is the ultimate boss battle. Even the most powerful humans in the world cannot defeat traffic,” Musk stated as he girded himself to try.
Some in the media and the scientific community are starting to catch on to the technological and economic infeasibility of Musk’s idea. WTTW included the fine print from a Boring Company competitor: “Drawing straight lines through cities, it turns out, is challenging,” said the chief engineer of Virgin Hyperloop One, commenting on the difficulty of making tight turns underground at about Mach 1. “We’re given easements and alignments that have bends, they have curves, they have hills, so when you factor those in, they limit the speed just a little bit. Given a little more money for real estate acquisition, you can straighten those, but it may not be worth it.” That article ran under the headline “Chicago to Pittsburgh in 45 minutes”—raising the question: Then what? Or take another example: “By 2029, a Hyperloop Could Make Columbus a Chicago Suburb.” Whoopee?
Last month, American theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel wrote in Big Think about why these vacuum-tube travel concoctions can’t work. If the speeds of more than 700 mph that Musk had been trumpeting are achieved, then “routine nausea and vomiting should be the expected outcome” for the humans inside. At lower speeds, you guessed it, it’s too costly.
Tom Hartsfield, an experimental physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote that “undeniably [Hyperloop] has an intangible ‘coolness factor.’” But “the cons are considerable, with safety and cost being the most pressing. . . Like building a colony on Mars [which Musk also wants to do], the biggest question might be one of willpower: How badly do we want it?” Especially if it’s “kind of icky.”
The political questions are even bigger than the scientific problems. Yet the Boring Company has pretty lofty goals, especially for a company that after a decade has exactly one prospective client (Las Vegas is considering replacing its failed monorail a vacuum tube replacement). But this isn’t like Twitter or Tesla, which rely more on marketing and public perception than political alignments. Maybe Tesla was ahead of its time when it launched in 2003, or when it was barely out-selling the Fisker Karma in 2012, but its technological hurdles were minor and the regulatory environment was exceptionally encouraging compared to what the Boring Company will face.
Going in the direction the regulatory winds are blowing is one thing—it’s easier to sell cars when the government sends a fat check to everyone who buys one. Tacking into the wind is something Musk doesn’t do very well. Ross Gerber, a major Tesla and Twitter investor, told the Washington Post that Musk “handles the fun part of the business,” adding, “Elon is not good at bureaucracies. . . He doesn’t think politically. He doesn’t care.”
The locals are now catching up with that perception. The city of Columbus spent a million dollars studying whether it wanted to be a station on a proposed Pittsburgh-to-Chicago underground vacuum tube, before opting out in April. Even thinking about hyperloops is expensive.
Anyone who has ever dealt with the black hole that is transportation planning knows that asking for billions for an unprovable science experiment is generally not worth the breath it takes to say “please.” Getting any major urban infrastructure project accomplished involves securing funding, taking into account the current and future needs of the community, extrapolating where the housing and jobs will be 20 years from now, coordinating federal, state and local interests, and figuring out how to get on the list of plans that are approved.
As one big city mayor told me years ago, “There is no party politics that involves pothole filling.” In other words, Musk has no natural political champion—but he has made some foes. He recently tweeted, “In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party. But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican. Now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold. . .”
That won’t be a problem in the big cities that the Boring Company will have to deal with, will it? Of the biggest 100 cities in the United States, 64 have Democratic mayors. The biggest city in the country with a Republican mayor is Jacksonville, followed by Fort Worth (but not Dallas), Oklahoma City, Fresno, Mesa, Omaha, Colorado Springs, Virginia Beach, Miami (but not Miami-Dade County), Tulsa, Bakersfield, and Aurora. That’s a weird rail line.
Still, Musk keeps pushing big urban areas for business for his tunnel company. In Texas, Musk reportedly wants to build an underwater tunnel in the Gulf of Mexico to replace ferry service, dig multiple subway-style tunnels to alleviate Austin and San Antonio congestion, and make a $3 million tunnel walkway (under an abandoned railroad line) to get fans from a high school to their football stadium.
Hyperloop tunnels that cost anywhere from $50 million to $120 million per mile (estimates that will grow exponentially, as they always do) don’t seem to be in that “doable” phase for local government dealing with a public that doesn’t want to leave their cars. Funding for any type of mass transit is not going to grow as ridership is declining nationally.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the local media, “We have a lot of transportation issues that we want to solve here in Texas and in San Antonio, frankly. [The nine-mile hyperloop tunnel] doesn’t solve any of them. . . What I have seen after exploring the Boring tunnel concept, again, doesn’t suit any of the priorities we’re trying to achieve in transportation.”
Musk’s other targets seem equally uninspired. Earlier this year, the North Texas transportation planning group rejected their participation for any hyperloop connection between Dallas and Fort Worth. Lower cost, high-speed rail is the first choice now.
Musk tweeted to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez last year that “Cars & trucks stuck in traffic generate megatons of toxic gases & particulate, but @boringcompany road tunnels under Miami would solve traffic & be an example to the world. Spoke with @RonDeSantisFL about tunnels last week. If Governor & Mayor want this done, we will do it.” He neglected to mention the $200 million price tag—which, again, is probably a low-ball. He also conveniently left out that Miami is only six-feet above sea level.
Urban planning guru Brent Toderian couldn’t contain his disdain for Musk’s fairytale proposals: “I’m just going to make this blanket statement to all city leaders and decision-makers of ANY kind—please don’t listen to ANYTHING Elon Musk says about cities or urban transportation.” That seems to be what most of Musk’s prospective clients were thinking anyway.