Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is Doomed
When Elon Musk Tweeted that he had “ verbal govt approval” to build a Hyperloop to carry passengers from New York to Washington in 30 mins, everyone with a lick of sense about transportation rolled their eyes. It was obviously delusion, fantasy, and hype, science-fiction nonsense.
In a different era, skeptics would have focused on the technology: a magnetic levitation system shooting passenger pods along through a tunnel that maintains a near-vacuum for hundreds of miles.
But nowadays we are blasé about technological challenges. If geeks can put a supercomputer in everyone’s pocket, we imagine they can build a mag-lev pod transit system. Mr. Musk does, after all, have his own space program.
No, what makes Musk’s Hyperloop plan seem like fantasy isn’t the high-tech part.
Shooting passengers along at more than 700 mph seems simple — engineers pushed 200 mph in a test this week, compared to building a tunnel from New York to Washington. And even digging that enormously long tunnel, 2X as long as the longest currently in existence seems straightforward compared to navigating the necessary regulatory approvals.
We live in a world where atoms are much harder to do anything with than bits, and where atoms that require regulatory permission are the hardest of all. The eye-rolling comes less from the technical challenges than from the bureaucratic ones.
With his premature declaration, Elon Musk is doing public debate a favor. He’s reminding us of what the barriers to ambitious projects really are: not technology, not even money, but getting permission to try.
“Permits harder than technology,” Mr. Musk Tweeted after talking with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about building a tunnel network. That’s true for the public sector as well as the private.
For some urban context: a recently opened stretch of subway in New York cost $4.5-B for less than 2 miles of rails. It was first proposed in 1919 and opened to the public in January 2017.
“These things take time.”
The Second Avenue subway is an extreme example of a general phenomenon. As I’ve previously written, a large infrastructure project may take 3-4 years of actual construction. But the work can’t even get started until there’s been a decade or more of planning and design. The bottleneck isn’t the actual construction, in other words. It’s the ever-more-detailed analyses, reviews and redesigns required and often litigated beforehand.
For New Deal nostalgics, this also explains why the stimulus bill passed in Y 2009 couldn’t easily include a full-blown Work Progress Administration-style jobs plan.
The obstacles facing a run-of-the-mill highway, tunnel, or bridge are great enough. Throw in untried and unfamiliar technology and you’re asking for endless delays. Those delays aren’t, however, facts of the natural world. They’re human artifacts. They don’t have to be there.
SpaceX and its commercial-spaceflight competitors can experiment because Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to protect them from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards.
Mr. Musk is betting that his salesmanship will have a similar effect on the ground. He’s trying to get the public so excited that the political pressures to allow the Hyperloop to go forward become irresistible.
He seems to believe that he can will the permission into being.
If he succeeds, he will upend not merely intercity transit but the bureaucratic process by which things get built.
That would be a true Si-Fi scenario.
By Virginia Postrel
Paul Ebeling, Editor