HyperLoop is an idea that has popped up all over my newsfeeds over the past day or so, and since it’s from a man who’s business work I admire, Elon Musk, I had to move aside some time to read his blog and paper on the concept.
As a guy with an urban planning background (undergraduate from Texas-Arlington and master’s from Berkeley), and a healthy interest in cities of the future that goes back to the age of six, it’s not hard to get excited about Elon Musk’s concept of what I call “tubular travel.” (As in, ‘Yeah, that’s tubular, man!’ A perfect California nickname.)
But I didn’t get far into what Mr. Musk wrote before I spotted some problems. First, here’s the basic description of HyperLoop, from Musk’s blog:
Hyperloop consists of a low pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube. The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift.
The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at
various stations on the low pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule.
Passengers may enter and exit Hyperloop at stations located either at the ends
of the tube, or branches along the tube length. In this study, the initial route, preliminary design, and logistics of the Hyperloop transportation
system have been derived.
The system consists of capsules that travel between Los Angeles, California and San Francisco, California.
The total trip time is approximately half an hour, with capsules
departing as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal and carrying 2 to 8
people each. This gives a total of 7.4 million people each way that
can be transported each year on Hyperloop. The total cost of Hyperloop in this
analysis is under $6 billion USD.
Second, the problems, to cut to the chase, are that Musk really thinks that because the tubes will be on pylons in the air, the land cost is reduced – he says this. Trouble is, he forgets about air rights, a long-standing real estate concept that says someone owns the air over land, and that too has a cost – if you want to use it, you have to pay for it.
Moreover, Musk wants to use the I-5 median, and that state-owned property certainly comes with an air-rights cost, not to mention the basic cost of land development for the pylons. Musk doesn’t take air rights into account, and he’s going to have to buy a lot of it for something going from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Third, Musk has these cool designs and engineering concepts for the capsule, and its power system, and even the design of the tube, but he forgets another simple consideration: research and development cost. All of these designs are brand new – there’s nothing off the shelf, and Mr Musk points to the technical problems posed by the ultra-high-speed objectives he wants to achieve, so it’s reasonable to see the creation cost to spiral to levels not considered in Musk’s presentation because, well, he doesn’t mention them. Research and development cost is a giant-sized x-factor.
In other words, what factory is going to build the vehicles? How much will that facility cost to design and build and staff? Then, where? What’s the materials cost? What’s the land cost? How about the cost to transport the capsules and the tube materials and components to their places along the construction site? Oh, and that’s going to be huge when you consider that capsule tubes are 100-yards apart – how many of them are there?
Elon Musk’s HyperLoop idea starts with his understandable frustration with High Speed Rail. But he’s so pissed off about it, he forgets that it, too, was initially pitched as being just north of $40 billion, and I can remember one estimate, early on, of $25 billion, before the reality of building it added costs that weren’t anticipated. HyperLoop is so unique it has a larger form of the same problem.
Nice try, Mr. Musk, but needs work.