Now that the hyper hype over the Hyperloop has subsided a bit, it’s time to start breathing again and look at the real-world challenges this daring and worthy engineering challenge faces. We’re not saying it’s a bad idea, but seeing as how Elon Musk wants to build it in California, that means his daring objective is going to be up against some bureaucratic friction and other issues it might not find elsewhere.
1. Land use rights are going to be a bitch.
Elon says the Hyperloop could run along the Interstate 5 corridor when possible because it runs pretty straight, it’s essentially settled land, and the tube will ride on elevated pylons, so very little ground work will be needed. Smart, and we agree in principle: It’s not like you can ugly up a freeway any more than it already is. The problems arise when the freeway turns (which it often does) and Hyperloop can’t. Then the Hyperloop is going to have to cross all manner of public and private lands. If I’m Farmer John (or, say, ConAgra John) and some billionaire engineer wants to build his hypertoy across my land, I’m going to demand a pretty penny (and many ongoing pennies) if he wants to sink as much as a light pole in my crops, let alone a bunch of 100-foot tall pylons. Expect the court bills to be more than $6 billion, let alone the $6 billion Elon says will be needed to build it.
Two big tubes on 100-foot tall pylons isn’t exactly a high-rise (or is it?), but if you’ve got a half-million dollar view of the Sierra Nevada range out your front door and the ElonTube 9000 is going through the middle of it, prepare for a court battle. Or at least to write some big checks. And while the Hyperloop may be a tech wonder, at its heart it’s a big elevated double tunnel out in the weather. If you’ve ever seen the underside of a freeway overpass, you know it’s not exactly modern art. Wondrous as it might be, once everyone gets over the hyper honeymoon, blight is just blight.
3. Greenie pushback.
The Hyperloop will feature clean, copious dino-free solar power, could even generate excess power, will likely be near-silent in operation while emitting zero emissions. Tree-huggers will be in line early to get tickets, right? Wrong. Prepare for a legal war with the green crowd if a pylon so much as casts a shadow on a wetland, requires the cutting of trees or displaces a single speckled… whatever. California’s enviro crowd is especially rabid and often highly tech-averse, a position that is either backwards or enlightened, depending on how many times you need to loop around from SF to LA per week. Count on having to meet myriad regulations every step of the way, from determining the battery composition, to pylon manufacturing methods, to using bamboo in the seat covers. Leather? Forget it.
When a friend saw the design drawing for the passenger capsules, her response was automatic: “There’s no way you’re getting me in that small space.” Doll it up all you want with video screens, free Internet or laughing gas, the fact remains passengers will be rocketing down a tube for at least 30 minutes at 700 miles an hour or better while strapped into an updated Apollo space capsule that has a bit more legroom. Where’s the bathroom again? Musk says that Hyperloop travel will be on par with an airliner in terms of motion, but at least on an airliner you can get up, walk the aisles and take a leak. You can also order drinks to take the edge off the fact you’re in a thin metal tube flying through sub-zero freezing cold air six miles above the earth at 500mph and there are zero parachutes on board because if things go terribly wrong, you’re D-O-N-E done. So you want to put folks in a windowless capsule for 30 minutes and have it blast along at speeds just below Mach 1? Sure, the tickets may only cost $20, but for a lot of people, Elon’s gonna need to pay them to take a ride and likely hand out some soma at the boarding gates. I’m down for the ride, but after the Hyperloop images broke out online, this was a sentiment I heard more than once. In a press call, Musk said Hyperloop could scale up to carry cars a la the Chunnel, so at least potty breaks could happen at that size. Build that one.
5. Nothing is crash-proof.
Several times a year, we witness large-scale failures in transportation infrastructure. Planes go down, bridges collapse, trains derail, tour buses filled with clean-living missionaries go careening off cliffs. Gear fails, nothing is foolproof and the fact that Musk detailed plans to “float” the Hyperloop on its pylons to up its resistance to earthquakes shows he recognizes this reality. But the nightmare I keep having is of a wee 3.5 quake shaking the tubes just hard enough to cause the capsules inside to pop out of their high-tolerance tracks and grenade themselves into tiny bits at 700 miles an hour inside a tube. Not pretty.
Elon, I’m a fan and not trying to be a wet blanket; I just respect the physics and political realities. Hyperloop is a grand idea, the kind of thinking and bravado this country has been sorely without for far too long. You say you might build a demonstrator and I hope you do. I’m in line to be one of the first to ride when it’s good to go (book me on the Mars trip as well). But to say this exercise will cost “only” $6 billion to build and $20 one way to ride I think ignores political and market obstacles, especially in the Golden State.
How about Wichita to St. Louis?