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Hyperloop Might Not Be What You Thought It Was
Elon has taken a leaf from the early automakers' corrupt play book.
Do you remember Hyperloop? Elon Musk’s brilliant idea to make a futuristic, hyperefficient, supersonic yet affordable travel a reality? This concept was plastered all over the news a few years ago, yet we hear nothing about it today. So, what happened to Musk’s Hyperloop? Well, it turns out Hyperloop might have a lot more in common with the brilliant film “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit?” than it does a futuristic technology. Let me explain.
For those hot on Musk’s tail, this might be old news. But when I learned about this, I had to write an article on it as soon as possible. You see, Hyperloop might have just been a trick Musk pulled to sell more cars.
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But before we get into that, let’s quickly reacquaint ourselves with Hyperloop. This concept is basically a superfast and efficient train inside a circular vacuum tube. The tube is held at a lower pressure than the ambient atmosphere, significantly reducing air resistance and allowing the “capsule” to travel extremely fast with minimal energy expenditure. The capsule itself rides on hyperefficient air bearings, which work similarly to an air hockey table, and are propelled using a magnetic propulsion system similar to a maglev train. The vacuum tube is one-way, with two terminals at either end. These terminals act as airlocks, allowing passengers and cargo to access the capsule.
According to Musk, Hyperloop can travel at 800 mph, or just over the speed of sound. This means a 400-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles trip would take only 30 minutes. Now, Musk estimates that such a Hyperloop would only cost $6 billion to construct, which may sound like a lot, but high-speed rail between these two cities is estimated to cost $68 billion! Moreover, because Hyperloop is so energy efficient, Musk estimates that these San Francisco to Los Angeles tickets would cost only $60. Meanwhile, the high-speed rail, which can only travel at 220 mph and will take 1 hour 48 minutes to do the same trip, would cost around $90.
Sounds like the perfect solution, doesn’t it? A super cheap, efficient, environmentally responsible inter-city transport solution that makes trains and air travel seem slow, expensive and dirty. So what’s wrong?
Well, the Hyperloop might have just been a cheap trick.
Back in 2017, Musk admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get plans for high-speed rail in California to be cancelled. By far, the best way to decarbonise transport is to move away from automobiles. Electric trains and streetcars are proven, efficient, safe, fast, affordable and easily scalable. Hence, why California was interested in building a high-speed rail line similar to the ones spread out across Europe and Asia.
But, if such a line were built, it would eat into Tesla’s sales. Musk can’t stand that. It turns out that Musk might have only developed Hyperloop to derail California’s high-speed rail project. The idea is that Musk never intended to build Hyperloop. Instead, he made a concept vaguely based on engineering principles that would make high-speed rail obsolete. That way, legislators would rather wait and pay for a Hyperloop in a few years rather than start an expensive high-speed rail project that would be useless by the time it is built. However, they didn’t know that Musk never wanted or intended to build Hyperloop in the first place. As such, those wishing to travel between these cities must buy a car, pushing more customers, particularly those keen on keeping their emissions down, towards Tesla.
These claims were made by Paris Marx, who liaised with Vance to dig up this story. This means I cannot absolutely prove this is what Musk was trying to do, but there is plenty of evidence to back this up (which I will get to in a second). Paris is a fantastic journalist; you should check out their work! — link to their Twitter here.
So, where is the evidence? Well, Musk routinely spouts and chases false solutions to problems we face. A great example is Tesla chasing self-driving cars rather than building EV public transport vehicles like buses, streetcars or trains. These give the same experience but are more efficient on space, more affordable and more scalable than Tesla’s non-existent robotaxis. Musk’s AI-powered humanoid Optimus robot is another dead-end idea. Musk claims it can replace entire workforces, so its demand could reach 20 billion units. Sadly, AI experts, robotics experts and economists all agree that this is just fanciful.
While Tesla is spending billions developing both its self-driving systems and Optimus, I, personally, feel this is a bit of a vapourware situation. The only reason Tesla is so valuable is that people value its AI prowess and potential down the road profitability. That is despite self-driving cars and usable humanoid robots being many decades away, and Tesla isn’t a leader in AI, robotics or self-driving cars (as I have covered before). As such, I, and many others, believe that these two projects are just lip service and hype around Musk’s AI, aiming to bloat Tesla’s stock price to Musk’s benefit. This would explain why, in 2021, Musk went against his own engineers to switch Tesla self-driving to a cheaper to produce vision-only self-driving system, which experts all agree is less safe than a system incorporating more expensive ultrasonic sensors, radar and lidar. Why else would he make this counterproductive switch?
Basically, there is a pattern of Musk manipulating the larger markets to his advantage.
But, when you look closer at the numbers, Hyperloop appears as yet another market-manipulating vapourware-like product.
There is a reason it has yet to get off the ground, despite the concept existing for well over a decade. It simply can’t be built. Hyperloop’s tests have only gone up to 248 mph, which is only just faster than high-speed rail, but these concepts aren’t rated for human passengers. While it is possible within the rules of physics for a Hyperloop capsule to travel as fast as Musk claimed, it is exceptionally hard from an engineering point of view. Especially when you have to take safety into consideration. For example, the air-bearing technology effectively used to levitate the capsule has a failure problem, especially at high speeds in low-pressure environments. If they fail, it is akin to a cataclysmic crash as the capsule grinds to a halt from 800 mph, destroying itself and the vacuum tube.
Solving problems like this is near impossible, especially when you consider the costs. Musk claimed that a San Francisco to Los Angeles Hyperloop would cost only $6 billion. But experts and economists have laughed at this cost. Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford and an expert on railways, has said, “The price is drastically underestimated.” Which makes sense when you think about it. The manufacturing, expertise and infrastructure to build high-speed rail already exist; it’s an already-scaled global industry. Hyperloop isn’t an established technology, let alone a scaled industry. Setting up factories and training personnel will cost billions!
What’s more, the tracks and trains of high-speed rail use far less material than Hyperloop, are far less complex and will take way less time to build, which should make it significantly cheaper than Hyperloop. So even without trying to solve the inherent engineering problems of Hyperloop, which could take a vast amount of R&D dollars, Hyperloop will cost far more than high-speed rail. Yet, we have yet to see any evidence that it will ever be faster or more efficient.
But the Hyperloop concept itself is deeply flawed when you look at it closely.
You cannot have stops along the way. You see, if a capsule is stopped up ahead, then a capsule catching back up to it will increase the air pressure by acting like a syringe plunger and messing with the whole system. Instead, you can only have a loop with two equidistant stops so that capsules can accelerate and decelerate in tandem. There are ways to solve this problem, but they cost yet more money. This also means a Hyperloop can’t branch into different lines. So, you can’t build a national network of interconnected Hyperloops, enabling you to go wherever you want (unlike a train). Again, in theory, you could solve this problem, but it will be damn expensive.
But this downside is actually a positive for Musk. You see, the US is one of the few developed countries that has basically no passenger intercity trains. This is why the nation is so dependent on cars. But, a high-speed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles could act as a nucleus, as more high-speed lines could branch from it, giving America the high-speed passenger trail infrastructure it has lacked. By scuppering such a project and potentially replacing it with a technology that can’t act as a nucleus, Musk can ensure the US stays addicted to cars, boosting his sales.
The last bit of evidence is how Musk has used the technology he developed for Hyperloop. You see, he poured millions into making a tunnelling machine to help build these vacuum tubes. Except, it has yet to be used for that. Instead, he has built a small tunnel through which you can take an autonomous joyride in a Tesla. It’s basically a sanitised and unrealistic self-driving test drive of a Tesla.
So rather than using the technology to try and build Hyperloops or even functional infrastructure, Musk is instead using it to get publicity for Tesla. It’s almost like Musk wants us to think that Hyperloop was a sham to push Tesla and crush trains.
There are a plethora of other issues with Hyperloop, such as the fact it will be very susceptible to terrorist acts, so security will have to be airplane-grade, which is yet another thing Musk has failed to explain.
This is why I think Hyperloop is, at best, a cheap trick by Musk and, at worst, a profoundly concerning conspiracy.
But Musk isn’t the first to do this. The same thing happened back in the 1940s, and it inspired one of the best movies of all time (in my opinion).
In the late 19th and early 20th century, electric trains and streetcars were gaining traction worldwide. They were fast, cheap, efficient, convenient and clean. Every city around the globe wanted streetcars and intercity rail. But, by the 1940s, they were so popular and so affordable that they threatened to cripple the American car industry. Rather than accept the free market’s forces, Firestone, Standard Oil California, Phillips Petroleum, GM and Mack Trucks banded together and bought nearly all the streetcar and train companies in the US. Then, over a few years, they drove these companies out of business from the inside, forcing American buyers to turn to oil-guzzling cars. These companies were then charged with conspiracy in 1949, but never forced to reinstate the rail infrastructure.
That’s why Europe and Asia have expansive, thriving and affordable high-speed rail networks, and people don’t have to rely on cars, but the US doesn’t. This conspiracy actually inspired the storyline of the film “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, which, despite its age, is still well worth a watch.
While Musk’s Hyperloop is far less of a blatant conspiracy, and it would be nearly impossible to bring charges against him for conspiracy, it definitely has all the hallmarks of being inspired by the petro-companies of the 1940s crookedly trying to expand their market share. He has just remixed it with his trademark over-exaggerated b******t hype that surrounds every one of his companies and ensured no one can pin any definitive blame on him. It’s funny that someone who claims to love the free market of capitalism sees a need to narrow and manipulate said market to his benefit so much.
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