Less than an Hour from Chicago to Pittsburgh? Don’t Believe the Hyperloop

Image: Hyperloop One
Image: Hyperloop One

Sometimes it seems like Americans will go to any extreme to avoid having to get serious about adopting sensible transportation practices that are common in other parts of the world, such as well-funded, efficient urban transit and high-speed rail. One of the most laughable examples of this line of thinking is the Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s scheme to shoot people through airtight tubes in special pods traveling up to 760 mph, as if we were letters in pneumatic mail tubes.

The $130 million Los Angeles-based start-up Hyperloop One announced last week that 11 U.S. teams will be working to develop routes for this hypothetical transportation system. The Midwest squad has proposed a 488-mile route from Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburg with the assumption that the trip will take a mere 47 minutes. (No word on why they’re dissing Indianapolis and Dayton, which wouldn’t be much of a detour.)

In a Hunger Games-like scenario, the 11 American teams will compete with two dozen other groups around the world, which will eventually be winnowed down to three finalists who will be tasked with financing and developing the system. Hyperloop One projects that the theoretical transportation network will be ready to roll (squirt?) by 2022. Last week Hyperloop One finished installing a 1,640-foot test tube outside of Las Vegas.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 9.18.50 PM
The Hyperloop test tube outside of Las Vegas. Image: Hyperloop One

“Hyperloop One is the only company in the world building an operational commercial Hyperloop system,” Rob Lloyd, the company’s CEO said in a statement. “This disruptive technology – conceived, developed and built in the U.S. – will move passengers and cargo faster, cleaner and more efficiently. It will transform transportation as we know it and create a more connected world.”

There’s just one problem. Other than that 500-meter tube in the desert, the Hyperloop concept is essentially fairy dust. As detailed by Streetsblog USA this morning, there are no real-world, functional examples of a Hyperloop, so anyone who’s taking the project seriously is essential making a leap of faith. The startup hasn’t even built a pod to go with that pipe, let alone tried a test run with human passengers.

Yet lots of decision makers are taking the proposal seriously. As Streetsblog USA reported, MORPC, the regional planning organization for Columbus submitted an application to develop the Columbus-to-Chicago stretch, which they say can cut the travel time to a mere 29 minutes. In addition to staff time and planning resources, they’re also willing to raise money for the project:

MORPC is ready to provide support in land use, population, and transportation forecasting; overall project coordination; and financing and operations technical assistance…

MORPC will work with partners across the Midwest region to identify and engage private sector partners in an effort to attract investment in both the study and development of a Hyperloop corridor.

As Streetsblog USA noted, Musk’s white paper for a Hyperloop route from Los Angeles to San Francisco was roundly debunked by mathematics and transit expert Alon Levy. He found that that the entrepreneur stated the engineering and land acquisition costs for the project at a tenth of what they would likely cost.

So I wouldn’t plan on making a sub-hour run to Iron City for a Primanti Brothers sandwich anytime soon.

  • david vartanoff

    The first New York Subway was a pneumatic system. And, one should remember that there were skeptics who decried railroad trains as improbable

  • johnaustingreenfield

    If you read Levy’s rebuttal to Musk’s white paper, you’ll see that there’s a hell of a lot to be skeptical about: https://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/loopy-ideas-are-fine-if-youre-an-entrepreneur/

  • johnaustingreenfield

    And then there’s this install confidence in Musk’s planning abilities: He can’t figure out his own employee parking lot. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4403480/Tesla-parking-nightmare-employees-California.html

  • FlamingoFresh

    You can’t invent new things unless you try. I like Musk’s approach to act now and figure out what works and what doesn’t. I don’t think we are close to having a successful Hyperloop but no one ever got anything done by sitting on their hands. It’s great that he has the money to approach things like this because it’s not cheap.

  • BlueFairlane

    The preferred order would be to invent the thing, then hit planning organizations up for time and money to figure out where it goes. Right now, he might as well be asking planners to figure out where to put the teleportation pads.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Elon Musk is a techno-utopian plutocrat. Everything he does is for the rich despite the fact that it’s full of ‘trickle down’ ideology. We will all subsidize the construction of this (should it happen) yet only the wealthy will be able to afford to use it.

  • david vartanoff

    About parking first. While the parking varlets are busy stuffing too many cars into the office parking lot, the factory parking should get saner now that BART’s Warm Spring Station is open, within decent walking distance.
    I am not a Musk afficionado. That said, I encourage the idea of thinking up new possibilities.

  • planetshwoop

    I fully suspect that cities will take another bad idea — autonomous cars — and start modifying street infrastructure to accomodate them through some kind of subsidies masked as “benefits” — expensive stoplights, or “autonomous car lanes” on highways.

  • FlamingoFresh

    It’s better than doing nothing.

  • BlueFairlane

    No, it’s really not. Since this draws time, resources, and political will from projects based on actual, proven, real-world technology, it works out to be the same as doing nothing, only more expensive.

    If the only argument for a thing is that “it’s better than doing nothing,” then the thing isn’t worth doing.

  • PP

    Elon Musk is all hype. His phony baloney Telsa venture is all perceived value. Hyperloop and Space X are essentially fantasy projects.

  • FlamingoFresh

    “It’s better than doing nothing” isn’t the only argument. Musk is creating conversation and talk about an alternative mode of transportation. He may not be capable in designing something like this, but he’s obviously generating interest from different industries and parties who would be more suitable in possibly making this a reality. If they want to use their own money and resources to investigate this then go for it, it’s their money and time. No one is forcing them to participate. And if you’re so concerned about resources being wasted into this hyperloop idea then maybe you shouldn’t be wasting your own time arguing with somebody on a discussion board.

    I really don’t care if a hyperloop is ever designed or not but even if it isn’t, there could be a chance that certain ideas and concepts that were developed in the process of attempting to design the hyperloop that could change the landscape of transportation in the future.

    At the very least it’s a constructive idea that is looking to improve an everyday task and if private investors want to throw their money at it so be it. It’s better than wasting it on another yacht or just doing nothing with it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Wasting private money on Hyperloop isn’t a big problem. Wasting public urban planning resources on Hyperloop, as MORPC is doing, is a problem.

  • BlueFairlane

    If this was nothing but folks arguing on the internet while rich people figure out how to blow the yacht budget, I’d be fine with it, but you can see in the very article you’re commenting on that that’s not what’s happening. The MORPC is an association of governmental entities, using taxpayer money to play out the Muskovite fantasy in a state where actual urban planners are usually handed crumbs.

    Meanwhile, taxpayers who are asked to vote on actual, feasible, proven projects are saying to themselves, “Why should I pay for this when Elon Musk tells me I can jump in a vacuum tube and be in Chicago in 42 seconds? He made it possible to buy stuff on the internet! He invented an expensive car using technology from the 1980s! Forget rail! I want Elon Musk to turn me into a Jetson!”

    That’s the problem. Resources–actual resources, not just internet talk–are very limited in the real world of transportation, and the Muskovites are draining it from real projects for something that is, literally, a pipe dream.

  • davidlubic

    “Sometimes it seems like Americans will go to any extreme to avoid having to get serious about adopting sensible transportation practices that are common in other parts of the world, such as well-funded, efficient urban transit and high-speed rail.”

    A fellow I know calls this ABR syndrome–Anything But Rail.

    It’s not limited to modern rail or transit systems. You have groups in various parts of the country that want to take out operating railroads to install bike trails.

  • Bernard Finucane

    I don’t see why people claim this is a new idea. It’s been around for decades.