Why Hyperloop’s awesome and still the wrong idea

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On 12 August 2013 Elon Musk published his much anticipated Hyperloop idea. Given his track record, Musk’s ‘Tony Stark’-like image and claims that Hyperloop would be a ‘fifth mode of transportation’ that ‘could revolutionize travel’ people got excited about what his exact vision might be.

So, now we know: Hyperloop basically is an elevated tube through which transport capsules move. The tube’s partially evacuated to reduce friction, hence allowing for much greater speed (almost approaching the speed of sound) at much lower energy consumption. Further details include solar panels on top of the tube, which according to the initial design would be more than sufficient for providing the energy needed for operating Hyperloop. The tube being only partially (instead of completely) evacuated means standard industrial pumps instead of expensive vacuum pumps could be used. Moreover, the tube wouldn’t have to be sealed airtight, which would lower operating and maintenance costs quite a bit.

Hyperloop has been designed for operating between cities which are a few hundred kilometres apart. Musk suggests a first route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which would merely take 30 minutes. Compared with the roughly two and a half hours it would take the intended California high speed rail to run between these cities this would mean an enormous improvement.

Indeed, Musk got the initial idea for Hyperloop due to the lack of ambition behind those high speed rail plans and the huge waste of tax payers’ money involved. While the plans for the conventional high speed rail system already amount to a cost of roughly $70 billion (which by all we know about the ways government spending works could easily double by the time the railway’s finished) the cost for a Hyperloop operating between San Francisco and Los Angeles would merely clock in at about $6 billion.

I like the fact that he’s basically taking on wasteful government spending with his approach. If anything this concept shows us what can be achieved by thinking out-of-the-box and foregoing conventional wisdom about ‘how things should be done’ and ‘huge infrastructure projects can only be accomplished by the government’. Hyperloop is very much a bold libertarian vision of how things should really be done. It flouts the conventional understanding that only the government is capable of managing projects at that scale. It’s also revealing in that not only have we come to condone wasteful government spending but today most of us also seem to have abandoned the idea of a future where bold visions have come to pass and which hence is not just incrementally better (if at all) than the present.

It’s good to be reminded once in a while that such visions and the overall conviction that the future can and will be better still exist. It’s equally important that people still realize that government intervention isn’t the only – maybe in most cases even the wrong – way of accomplishing big projects.

However, on a more pragmatic level I think Hyperloop is addressing the underlying problem from the wrong end, the root problem being that people still need to physically get from one location to another for doing regular, recurring business. After all, if it were to be realized given it’s cheap pricing and short travel times Hyperloop would be an ideal means of transport for regular commuters.

Like I said some time ago in an article about Google’s self-driving cars:

“Though self-driving cars might alleviate this they won’t solve the root problem: Transporting people to their workplaces when there’s technology available that would allow them to work remotely or in fact from any place they’d like to is just wrong.”

This very much applies to Hyperloop, too. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with allowing people to interact with each other in person more easily and more frequently, trying to alleviate issues with commuting by providing alternative modes of transport is the wrong approach and essentially small thinking. What we really need to do in this context is do away with the need for commuting altogether, so we have more time for truly meaningful work and truly meaningful interactions with other people. This is not so much a problem of technology – after all reliable remote working technology has existed for more than a decade now – but of rethinking the way we manage work.

Coming back to my previous thoughts on big visionary ideas this is exactly the way we should be thinking about the future: Trying to improve quality of life and the human condition by actually solving burning issues in novel ways instead of just accepting and perpetuating the status quo.

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