Hyperloop De-hyped

OFP2003 pointed out yesterday that Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk has finally revealed what he means by a hyperloop, which he proposes should be built between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As described in detail in this paper, he proposes an elevated tube paralleling Interstate 5 through which capsules or pods move at near-supersonic speeds propelled by linear induction motors.


Claustrophobes need not apply: Hyperloop passengers would be stuck in a windowless seat with limited headroom for the hour or so it would take to get between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Musk estimates that a tube capable of carrying both people and freight would cost about $7.5 billion to build. Each capsule would have 28 seats, and could depart on two-minute headways. He says this would be enough to carry all six million people who today travel between the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas each year.

The Antiplanner certainly has no problem if he wants to build a hyperloop with his own or other private investors’ money. But in general I am skeptical about any infrastructure-heavy form of transportation, especially mass transit systems that only serve a few destinations.

To start with, Musk contrasts his estimate of a $7.5 billion cost with the $100-billion-plus cost of high-speed rail. But that $7.5 billion estimate is amazingly close to the original estimate of high-speed rail’s cost, which was about $9.8 billion. It seems likely that the real cost of the hyperloop will be much higher than Musk thinks.

While the hyperloop would be far faster than the proposed high-seed rail, it will only be about the same speed as flying. The main disadvantage of flying today is airport security; it would be a lot cheaper, and far less risky, to figure out ways to speed up security than to build an infrastructure-heavy, 400-plus mile system using a brand-new technology.


Musk’s map of a possible hyperloop network makes it clear that, unlike a car, bus, or train, the hyperloop can serve only a limited number of destinations with no intermediate stops.

Turning to Musk’s demand estimates, it is important to point out that, if six million people a year travel between the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, far more travel between either of those areas and points in-between or points to the north of San Francisco or south of Los Angeles. The hyperloop would be restricted to serving only those between the main two terminals, so it would only have access to a small fraction of total traffic.

This means most people will find the hyperloop useful for only a few trips a year, and not being in the habit of using it probably wouldn’t use it for those trips either. Serving more destinations means adding far more infrastructure, which is expensive and even more risky.

Moreover, he is optimistic to think that all, or even a significant fraction, of the six million people who now journey between these two urban areas would shift to the hyperloop. His system doesn’t allow for intermediate stations, so only those people who live or work relatively close to a hyperloop station will use it frequently. That means, for example, if there is a station in downtown Oakland, as Musk proposes, people from San Jose will be reluctant to go north to Oakland only to catch a capsule south. Plus, many people will want the convenience of a personal vehicle when they reach their destination, and the hyperloop can’t provide that.

In sum, the hyperloop may be faster than driving but it can’t compete against the convenience of being able to go where you want to go. It may be as fast as flying, possibly even a bit faster, but its costly infrastructure would make it difficult to compete with air travel on price.

The Antiplanner has nothing against Musk, the hyperloop technology, or Tesla. But like Tesla, which is selling cars that only the wealthy can afford, the hyperloop would be an expensive gadget useful and affordable only to a few.

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12 thoughts on “Hyperloop De-hyped

  1. Jay

    Musk’s proposal involves a train in an evacuated tube, which raises the question of how people will breathe. A train full of densely packed people is going to need to replenish its air every 5-10 minutes. You can fit the trains with compressed air, and discharging it to the rear even helps, but the resulting system won’t fail gracefully. If the train stops for whatever reason (earthquakes, perhaps), the passengers are trapped in a train with a finite air capacity, that’s in a (necessarily very durable) air-free shaft, packed in like sardines with no space to move.

  2. Jay

    Naturally, the terminals for anything like this would attract car rental businesses, taxis, buses, and many of the sorts of collateral businesses one sees at airports.

  3. OFP2003

    I haven’t read the paper, but at first glance I see “Noise” a big problem. That much air moving that fast is going to create a lot of sound, especially if you have a propeller of some sort making the air move. New technology sure is exciting! I don’t see Point to Point as a problem, since that’s what the airlines are doing anyway. The ChinaTown buses are point to point and they are thriving.

    Personally, I would never invest in anything that locks people into windowless tubes in a prone position. Musk should consult with Siemens and access the user-feedback data from their MRI machine’s. People don’t like being in tight quarters like that.

    Thanks for your review.

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    OFP2003 says, “especially if you have a propeller of some sort making the air move.” Linear induction motors don’t use propellers.

    “I don’t see Point to Point as a problem, since that’s what the airlines are doing anyway.” Airlines serve five commercial airports in LA, three in SF, and planes from any airport can go to any other without adding new infrastructure. Musk’s technology pretty much requires an entirely new set of infrastructure for each new destination.

  5. JOHN1000

    A few of the other commenters mentioned physical issues. Oh yes.

    What will be the effects on the human body moving at such speeds under these conditions? Astronauts undergo substantial training and conditioning, and most people fail that. Seaman on submarines have similar issues. Putting people with a variety of health problems in this contraption sounds like a bad 1950′s sci-fi movie.

    I would not want to be in there if someone throws up, or worse.

  6. OFP2003

    Hopefully, the innovation of the infrastructure would not stop at the door to get in and out of the tube making rental car/bus/personal car transfer easier than the airports. Chinatown busses, aren’t they “point to point” with completely zero additional infrastructure to transfer to other means of travel, and aren’t they thriving???

    And the list of problems of being packed in that tube just gets longer.

  7. bennett

    “What will be the effects on the human body moving at such speeds under these conditions?”

    I have an uncle that was a fighter pilot. He told me that you flex your butt cheeks. This way the blood doesn’t rush to your feet.

  8. Sandy Teal

    You have to wonder how much speed people need to travel. Even the Concord totally failed financially, and its only profitability came from the fact that you could be assured of rubbing elbows with rich people.

    What really is the value in getting to SF a little faster from LA? It probably is much more valuable that the time travelling is comfortable and available to conduct business work. The very rich will prefer private planes where they skip security delays and can conduct business the whole time they are on the plane.

  9. jon889

    The problem of not having a car on the other end, applies to all forms of public transport, including airplanes.The only one it doesn’t apply to is a car ferry which is obviously limited to travelling on water, and is slow.
    Actually in Musk’s plans there was idea/plan to have capsules that carry cars.

    The general idea should be to have great inner city public transport, that is slower and can stop in many locations and cars. These take people from around the city to inter city transport, which has no inbetween stops and can travel fast. Projects like Hyperloop and HSR shouldn’t be satisfying all the needs of the city in terms of transport because that will make it a horrible means of travel. It’s meant for inter city transport and so thats why it shouldn’t have stops en route.

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