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A little skepticism about hyperloops

Streetsblog isn’t having the hyperloop hype.

There are no functional, real-world examples of a Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s long-distance transport concept that involves shooting people through vacuum-sealed tubes in pods that travel at up to 760 mph. Anyone who believes it’s a viable endeavor is basically taking it on faith.

“Hyperloop One” — the $130 million startup promoting the idea — has built a short 500-meter test track in the desert outside of Las Vegas but has yet to construct a pod to go with the tube, much less tested the technology on humans.

And yet a surprising number of government agencies are treating the Hyperloop as a serious proposition.

[…]

Hyperloop One even sells the technology as a solution to high housing prices, by enabling, for instance, “breadwinners to build a career in Boulder’s thriving tech hubs while commuting from Greeley, where median home prices are 60% lower.” It is a promise to enable sprawl so central cities can relax and avoid the difficult politics of creating more walkable development and inclusive housing policies.

Four years ago, mathematician and transit analyst Alon Levy wrote an epic takedown about the viability of Hyperloop technology. Levy evaluated Musk’s white paper [PDF] detailing how the Hyperloop would connect L.A. to San Francisco in about 30 minutes, and he found major problems. Musk’s cost estimates for engineering and land acquisition are inexplicably low — by a factor of 10 compared with current market norms, he said. (Whether people will be comfortable under to that type of propulsion is a whole other question. Levy says the Hyperloop would be a “barf ride.”)

America has the means to reduce traffic and connect people to where they want to go in less time — but solving these problems entails politically difficult choices to shift travel away from cars and highways. Any high-tech solution that promises a shortcut around these thorny problems is probably too good to be true. Like “personal rapid transit” or the Chinese “straddling bus” — the Hyperloop could end up taking credulous believers for a ride.

See here for previous hyperloop blogging. I consider myself skeptical of this idea, but it sounds so cool that I kind of hope I’m wrong. It would be nice to see some kind of working prototype get built, so we’d have some data about the cost and practicalities. It’s a lot easier to be a visionary if one’s visions remain conceptual. If you’ve got your head in the clouds about hyperloops, this story and the aforementioned epic (and long) takedown are worth a read.

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3 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    The Levy article also leaves out the engineering challenges: it’s virtually impossible to build it to run safely. The test track is already the world’s second largest vacuum chamber; the amount of pressure on the track walls is enormous, and any leak could be catastrophic. Any full scale system would be incredibly dangerous:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNFesa01llk

  2. Joel says:

    “America has the means to reduce traffic and connect people to where they want to go in less time — but solving these problems entails politically difficult choices to shift travel away from cars and highways. Any high-tech solution that promises a shortcut around these thorny problems is probably too good to be true. ”

    i don’t get this part. it says we have to find alternatives to cars, then dismisses any “hi-tech” alternative to cars as “too good to be true.” so, what, then?

    could it be that this article really just wanted to say “we’re f***ed, no way out,” but they needed a higher word count?

  3. voter_worker says:

    Why would anyone use the Greeley-Boulder link as an example of hyperloop credibility? The two cities are only 60 or 64 miles apart by Google Map’s reckoning. Alon Levy’s analysis is a very good read and I appreciate his perspective on Musk’s inflated status as a visionary based mostly on accumulated wealth, media promotion and the gullibility of the masses (reminds me of someone else we know). In a robotic, post-employment world of UBI, who exactly will be the customer base for this mode of transport? Perhaps the robot-human hybrids that Musk is now working to develop.

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