The overhyped hyperloop: is Elon Musk's plan a superfast load of nonsense?

The Hyperloop as pitched – as a $6bn project usefully linking two cities – can't exist. But the excitement around it could destroy any hopes for a workable Californian high speed rail link.

I hear those things are awfully loud

It glides as softly as a cloud

Is there a chance the track could bend?

Not on your life, my Hindu friend

What about us brain-dead slobs?

You'll be given cushy jobs

It's hard, in this day and age, to properly earn the title "eccentric billionaire", but Elon Musk, the 42-year-old South African who made his fortune as one of the founders of PayPal, is getting there. Since the company to eBay in 2002, Musk has been prowling for other ideas which will change the world. Given the most conventional of those is completely retooling America's private transportation infrastructure with the most serious push yet to popularise the electric car, he's certainly earned the "eccentric" tag.

As well as Tesla Motors, which has so far brought two cars to market and installed a network of high-speed chargers up and down the east coast of the United States, Musk also runs SpaceX, a private space transport company. Like Tesla, this is no pie-in-the-sky concept; last year, SpaceX became the world's first privately held company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station, carried into orbit on the back of one of its Falcon 9 booster rockets.

Now, Musk has a third idea. He's too busy to actually do it – running three companies at once is apparently too much even for him – but he's bequeathed the idea to the world, in the form of a 57 page PDF: the Hyperloop.

Described by Musk in the hype campaign building up to the launch as a "cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table", the Hyperloop is intended to be a revolutionary new form of public transport. Capsules containing 28 passengers each would be accelerated up to 760mph through what is, in essence, a giant railgun. They then travel the distance between LA and San Francisco in a low-pressure tube, floating on a cushion of air, before being slowed back down at the other end just half an hour later.

It's futuristic as hell, but if you read the "alpha" proposal, Musk thinks it can work. He writes that "short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment."

For something which is barely more than napkin scribbles – the proposals describe it as "an open source transportation concept" – there are an impressive number of details worked out already. In order to save on land use, the Hyperloop would run on pylons above the main motorway between the two cities. The air on which it floats is sucked in from the front, in order to avoid the "Kantrowitz Limit" (think about the problems in trying to shove a plunger down a tube really fast). The battery packs running the fans, and the linear electric motors which power the cars, are charged largely by solar power, plentiful in sunny California. In order to reduce energy use even further, regenerative braking is used at each end, converting some of the kinetic energy back into electrical power. There's even an estimate of how well the tube would cope with an earthquake or terrorist attack.


But for every detail worked out thoroughly, there's one which is slightly glossed over. Take the route: throughout the plan, it's described as being from "San Francisco to Los Angeles". But that's not strictly true.

The Los Angeles stop is just south of Santa Clarita, a 40 minute drive from downtown LA. That's bad enough for a city where the main airport is very much in the centre of town, but it's worse when you consider that Musk envisages the system being used "more for commuting than for vacations". Public transport in LA isn't great (the same trip would take around 2 hours on a mixture of buses and metro rail). Perhaps Musk envisages his commuters taking two taxis every day, in addition to a return trip through a vacuum tube?

The situation in San Francisco is more ambiguous. One map shows the tube crossing the Bay Bridge, but a second shows it terminating in San Lorenzo, again a half hour drive from San Francisco proper. At least San Francisco has working trains, though; a BART would take you into town in the same time (Again, however, the airport is closer in to town).

So while it's not untrue to say that the system makes the journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes, the useful journey time is considerably longer. That one guy who lives in Santa Clarita and wants to take a job in San Lorenzo will be over the moon, though.

There are similar elisions elsewhere. The cost of land is the second biggest single outlay, estimated at a billion of the six billion dollars Musk budgets; but that assumes that land already owned by the state – specifically, the median of the I-5 interstate – is free. In practice, the California transport department might have something to say about that. And even if they don't, "using existing resources" isn't the same as "using no resources". Building a hyperloop on the central reservation of a motorway necessarily prevents other things being built there, such as an extra lane for traffic, the midpoint of a footbridge, or even just a more conventional mass transportation system.

Whether or not the hyperloop even is a mass transportation system is probably the biggest thing of all. The draft proposal says that:

Assuming an average departure time of 2 minutes between capsules, a minimum of 28 passengers per capsule are required to meet 840 passengers per hour.

In rush hour, the departures would be sped up, allowing slightly over 1,000 passengers to be carried in an hour, and the theoretical maximum of the system is around 3,360, assuming departures every 30 seconds, and no delays ever. (That would also require the purchase of more capsules and larger stations, boosting the cost of the system further).

For comparison, one Metropolitan line S Stock train, introduced in 2010, can carry 1,532 people. 16 of them run every hour, moving almost 25,000 people around the capital. Even if we just look at long-distance only, a single Eurostar train carries 750 people, and five of them depart Kings Cross St Pancras in rush hour, ferrying around four thousand people through the channel tunnel.

It's the one comparison Musk simply doesn't make, and it's no small deal, either. Throughout the document are barbed references to the Californian high speed rail plan, an expensive but thoroughly developed proposal to build a conventional railway between the two cities. (Unlike the Hyperloop, the proposal actually does connect the two cities, not their outlying suburbs). We can find comparisons of cost, and of speed, but nowhere in the Hyperloop proposal is it mentioned that the current plans for the Califoria HSR give it over ten times the capacity of the Hyperloop.

Musk does note that the capacity would be "more than sufficient to transport all of the 6 million passengers traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco areas per year", but fails to note that new transport modes increase demand. Just because it seems like the loop has enough capacity now, does not mean it won't still be over-full by the time it opens.

Strong words

All the above criticisms are made even accepting the documents claims at face value. When you start to examine the claims themselves, the case gets even shakier.

Alon Levy is a transportation engineer who has taken a more thorough look at some of the major claims made by Musk. The problems he finds come in four broad areas: cost, comfort, capacity and energy consumption.

The first is the biggest. The case for Hyperloop is so strong because it can, apparently, be built for just $6bn, a tenth of the California HSR. Some of that comes from the cost cutting involved in avoiding the centre of towns and assuming land already owned by the state is free; but Levy argues that more of it is just plain wishful thinking.

For example, the cost for viaducts on California's conventional rail plan (costs which aren't presented in an "open source transportation concept", but in a far more detailed actionable plan) are around ten times what Musk plans for the Hyperloop. The capsules themselves are lighter than a train, which would reduce the cost of the viaduct somewhat, but welded steel tubes are pretty heavy themselves. A meter of the tube would weigh a little under four tonnes; as Levy points out, a meter of train weighs around half that.

Even if it is just as expensive as conventional rail, at least it's faster, right? Well, aside from the fact that door-to-door, it will likely be around the same speed unless you happen to live in a northern suburb of LA or on the east Bay, that speed causes problems. If you're going fast, you get flung out to the side at curves, and crushed down to the floor when climbing hills. Even though the Hyperloop takes account of that, it still presents a considerably more uncomfortable journey than a train: the horizontal forces are around twice that of a conventional HSR, and Levy estimates the vertical forces as between seven to ten times as high. Oh, and the 30 second headway required to fit the maximum capacity in the tubes would necessitate emergency braking twice as forceful as the US government currently allows for passengers with seat belts.

"There is no redeeming feature of Hyperloop," writes Levy. "Small things can possibly be fixed; the cost problems, the locations of the stations, and the passenger comfort issues given cost constraints can’t . . . If Musk really found a way to build viaducts for $5 million per kilometer, this is a huge thing for civil engineering in general and he should announce this in the most general context of urban transportation, rather than the niche of intercity transportation. If Musk has experiments showing that it’s possible to have sharper turns or faster deceleration than claimed by Transrapid, then he’s made a major discovery in aviation and should announce it as such. That he thinks it just applies to his project suggests he doesn’t really have any real improvement."

More than grumbles

It's easy to be a naysayer about this sort of proposal. Anything presented in a skeleton outline like this can have a myriad imaginary problems placed on it: where will the bathrooms be? Who's going to design the stations? What's the room for expansions and upgrades?

To take a draft proposal like this fairly requires an open mind. Problems will be worked out, even if cost overruns are to be expected, and shutting something down before it's even begun isn't the way to achieve progress.

But there's a difference between giving something the benefit of the doubt, and allowing unachievable promises to stand. The Hyperloop as pitched – as a $6bn project usefully linking two cities – can't exist. The problems of capacity are inherent to the plan, and even at the theoretical maximum the system will carry fewer people than a typical high speed rail network. And dumping 4,000 people an hour on the outskirts of LA will require a dramatic restructuring of the city's internal transportation networks, again not included in the cots.

If it were only a napkin scribble, the over-promising wouldn't have pernicious effects. At worst, a bit more cash might be pumped into the concept before realising its unworkable. But the whole proposal is clearly targeted at the case for the California HSR. From the off, Musk is clear, writing that "when the California 'high speed' rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too." And so there is a risk that Musk will succeed in destroying the already tenuous support for a workable rail project, without the ability to offer anything else in its stead.

The proposed hyperloop.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Show Hide image

Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.


After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?


University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.


A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.


Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war