Take the hype out of Hyperloop

The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop

It amazes me to read the reactions to the recent proposal by Elon Musk to create a hyperloop – essentially a vacuum tube running from San Francisco to LA, and maybe later one running across the country. Choruses of “it can’t be done” resonate across the media with deafening unanimity.

I ask the question “why can’t it be done?”

I don’t mean why in terms of “how many curves does the track need,” or “what are the issues regarding heat buildup?” for those are the technicalities of innovation that human beings are very good at resolving.

My concern is, why can’t it be done by a nation that was founded on “can-do?” Why do people and the media leap on a good idea and pillory it in the town square?

I think always about Google Earth and Google Street View:  The enormous effort of not only indexing the streets and neighborhoods of much of the world, but also actually photographing them in person, and then stitching all the photographs together, and then making them searchable and findable, and then making the results visible on any type of computer for free, and then making it available all over again in 3D. Imagine if any one of our many layers of government had tried to undertake such a project. It would have been buried under mountains of feasibility studies, consultants, diverted funds, earmarked bills, protests, obstruction, cost overruns, strikes, incompatibilities, defects, incompetence and graft. Yet a single company undertook to do this. And they went out and did it. And they succeeded. On their own dime.

The future has always belonged to pioneers and visionaries. Sir Richard Branson named his company Virgin because he went into businesses where he had no experience. He just went and did it. Sometimes he failed. Other times he succeeded enormously. More humbly, but equally significant, the inventor of the 3M Post-It note worked, on company time, to noodle with an idea that was an original project failure: a glue that wouldn’t stick.

Invention comes from experimentation. Innovation comes from drive and vision. Naysayers stand on the sidelines and laugh, yet they’re always ready to come to the party once success has been attained. How many of the people that we observe daily, texting messages to their coworkers or family members, would have greeted with a shudder of revulsion the prospect of carrying a mobile device containing a camera, that can be tracked by big business and government through a series of relay towers? Yet there they are.

Hyperloop image from Gizmodo

Hyperloop image from Gizmodo

The vision of Elon Musk is akin to the works of John F. Kennedy, when he challenged America to put a human on the moon by the end of the decade. It is akin to the ideas of Steve Jobs, or of Nobutoshi Kihara, the Japanese inventor who had the audacity to put a music player (the Sony Walkman) into a person’s pocket. With PayPal, Elon Musk changed the way people do business and transfer money. Mark Zuckerberg changed the way people relate to each other. Did these people ask for permission to do this? No. Did they ask whether it could or should be done? No, they just went ahead and did it.

The great value of Musk’s Hyperloop vision is it gets people talking. In this age of open source idea-sharing, someone else will come along and raise his idea to a new level. The ultimate hyperloop transport may look and operate nothing like Musk’s current vision, the same way a passenger jet has little resemblance to the Wright Brother’s flying machine.

What is sad is that the number of vocal naysayers seems to be greater than the number of enthusiasts. Too many people are more interested in protecting the status quo, where their vested interests currently lie, than to explore new options, which may have great and lucrative ramifications in the near future.

A company can only ever be moving forward or moving backward. You advance or you die. This notion applies to countries and civilizations also. When resistance to innovation overpowers personal motivation, the nation dies. And other hungrier nations leap in to fill the void.

I for one would like to see the media, and its corporate masters refrain from their soft mockery of visionary inventors, scientists and geeks, and instead question where the world (or at least their corner of it) will be in 50 years if these people are not given the credibility that they deserve. Because the status quo is not in a rock-solid state. It is like glass – a liquid that drips slowly down by the inexorable pull of gravity and of reality.

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48 comments

  1. Was the scepticism more due to the presentation, and “hype” than the concept? Basically it was all over the news that Elton Musk was going to unveil something incredible, and in the end it was just him saying “this is an idea I’ve had. I’ve not made a prototype or have any actual plans”. I’m pretty sure others have made very similar suggestions in the past, but the proof is in the pudding. Ad you say, Google just “did it” with Maps, and that’s what’s missing here. As a note, I think it sounds brilliant!

  2. I think you have an excellent point. History is replete with examples of individuals and small groups of people who did what no one thought was possible at the time. Innovation is baked into our DNA.

  3. Having an “Elton Musk” around would at least guarantee great music during the brief trip! 🙂

  4. Where I’m from we can’t even build a light rail service to connect the metro area, and are currently wasting millions on highways instead of investing in public transportation. The US is so far behind and may never catch up in transportation improvements because of the almighty automobile.

  5. I’m not entirely sure your title makes sense given what you’ve written. Taking the hype OUT of the thing pretty much means pulling it back down to Earth and asking the guy to do more than spin tall stories like that parody TED talk video that got sent around a while back.

    Which seems to be what you wish the press hadn’t done.

  6. Excellent point. In my opinion the media seems to take great delight in skewering anything that is unusual, especially when quirky, wealthy inventors are at the helm. They did the same with Howard Hughes, I do recall. The “hype” I am referring to obliquely is that cast onto Elon Musk himself. It often seems that those who refused to climb the traditional career ladder but instead buck the trends and just “go for it,” quickly become the objects of scorn and envy. That may just be my viewpoint, but I believe that any idea, no matter how outlandish, when shared with another creative person can spark change in all kinds of ways. – SP

  7. Yes, there have been plans for tube-style people movers for decades, but I think it’s what Malcom Gladwell refers to as the “Tipping Point”: the right person comes along at the right time and gets just the right attention, maybe it will work where others have failed. The path of innovation is littered with Segways and Newtons, but then again, the inventor of Gorilla Glass probably never thought he (or she) would see the day when everyone owned a sliver of it, as we all do now. That’s what I love about human endeavour. It’s something of a horserace. – SP

  8. Naysayers won’t do, but scientists criticising the idea from every angle would be an essential component of its creation, no?

  9. I was just reading in The Economist about the Californians’ objections to the Hyperloop. They sounded pretty bogus. I think the real problem is than San Franciscans don’t want to be a half-hour from Los Angeles and vice versa. He probably should have suggested Los Angeles and Las Vegas as the terminals.

  10. I could see a tube from America to Europe (or LA to San Francisco via the Pacific Ocean). Underwater (though having external pressure issues) would be easier to install than an overground system.

    Once a concept is in place, engineers can build anything.

  11. En los años ’30 del pasado siglo, la TV era un hecho y sin embargo voces agoreras la negaban, no le daban crédito. La imaginación no tiene límites como tampoco la capacidad del hombre para hacerla realidad. La cuarta dimensión (La mosca, film) llegará el día en qué. en la grand central station, entremos a la cabina “To Tokio” y, en pleno Soho de la capital nipona, salgamos cinco minutos después, de la cabina “From N.Y.”…!
    En lo primero fue la imagen material convertida en onda. En lo segundo, ¿será transmutativa la materia…? ¿Lo logrará la ciencia, antes de la llegada del gran meteorito que hará borrón y cuenta nueva…? Shalom.

  12. En los años ’30 del pasado siglo, la TV era un hecho y sin embargo voces agoreras la negaban, no le daban crédito. La Imaginación no Tiene Límites Como tampoco la Capacidad del hombre párr hacerla Realidad. La Cuarta Dimensión (La mosca, película) Llegara El Día en Que. en la estación central de la cola, entremos a la cabina “Para Tokio” y, en Pleno Soho de la de capital nipona, salgamos cinco Minutos despues, de la cabina “Desde NY” …!
    En lo Primero FUE la imagen convertida en material de onda. En lo Segundo, ¿Sera transmutativa la materia …? ¿Lo logrará la Ciencia, los antes de la LLEGADA del gran meteorito Que hara borrón y cuenta nueva …? Shalom.

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    TEXTO ORIGINAL
    en la grand central station, entremos a la cabina “To Tokio” y, en pleno Soho de la capital nipona, salgamos cinco minutos después, de la cabina “From NY”…! En lo primero fue la imagen material convertida en onda…..Que pésima traducción. Presento excusas a los lectores.JLM

  13. Supersonic railways were, I believe, first described by Robert A Heinlein in ‘Starman Jones’ (1953) – his version was a kind of ‘magnetic loop ring’ system in which the bullet-like train was whisked between separated towers without a rail. Cool science fiction with the classic Heinlein hard-engineering edge. Musk’s proposal is credible because he doesn’t rely on technomagic – everything he proposes stretches what we know – but not foolishly; it is all practicable, do-able near-term stuff, given the money and the drive to do it. Much like the moon landings were in 1960. Kennedy didn’t lay down the gauntlet over that one until he’d made sure it was possible.

    The point about these near-future, ‘stretch the tech’ projects being that, inevitably, serendipity then takes what we know in directions we never anticipated. Usually to our benefit.

  14. Insightful post. I especially liked your closing volley aimed at those who are content to sit by and mock while embracing the status quo without regard to the mounting problems of transportation in California and the rest of the country.
    Musk has proven himself a world class mind and his generosity in sharing the concept and preliminary plans is commendable. I joked about it in a recent post (Update Button for Life), but I fully support the effort to try something new. The portions of The Hyperloop pdf I could understand seem to make a compelling argument for some other option than the currently proposed high-speed rail.
    This is California, the home of innovation and cutting edge technology. Somebody is going to try something new. Why not us? Why not now?

  15. The concept is good, but any engineering project has to be tested and tweaked many times before it becomes operational. Perhaps Musk could get funding from the Department of Energy for a scaled down version of the loop, perhaps 10-20 km in length.

  16. Kelly – I agree we should try it now. Technologies such as magnetic levitation already exist, and anything that can assist in helping us become energy independent is always welcome. There is a story about the founding of FedEx by Frederick Smith. He proposed a parcel delivery system for the computer age based on a single hub system (i.e. every package moves through one big warehouse). His professor told him that to receive even a “C” grade for the paper, the idea should be feasible – the professor thought this idea would never work. Many great ideas are greeted with negativism, because, sadly, that is human nature. It is up to the few with the imagination and the determination to make great things happen. – Steve

  17. Matthew – You make some great points. Science fiction writers are always very good at sparking ideas. I think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov also fit into this hallowed group. What is also fascinating is to look at the things we already have, that were once the stuff of fantasy, especially the smartphone. It was Asimov, I believe, who once said “the perfect machine is one that has no moving parts,” and the smartphone has come to embody this notion. – Steve

  18. The world’s longest underwater tunnel is being built between two coastal cities in China. It is planned to be 72 miles long. Humans are very good at figuring out the mechanincs of challenging situations. – Steve

  19. Heather – Steve Jobs once said “every year, every person has an idea that will change the world.” I think it’s a matter of writing it down and then talking about it with someone. – Steve

  20. That reminds me of the day the tunnel was completed between England and France. First they celebrated the monumental engineering victory. Then the British and the French both realized they had just connected England and France! If Las Vegas was the end terminal for a hyperloop, somehow I feel funding would no longer be a problem. – Steve

  21. Thanks – yes, the ‘big three’ SF writers, I was brought up on their stuff. Each amazing in their own way, each with their own unique angle. I remain intrigued with Clarke, who remains the ONLY person I’m aware of – in or out of SF, or anywhere – to have predicted the social consequences of cheap mass communication, worldwide. He absolutely nailed the outcome of the internet from remote employment to the way we can communicate and socialise – as you and I are now – with people we know only via the computer. He first outlined it in the 1960s and refined his predictions in the 1970s…and nobody noticed…

  22. …and nobody noticed… yes, indeed that is the way with sci-fi writers, they have the vision, and it takes humanity decades to catch up. I think of this every time I use Skype, and I remember the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave Bowman uses the videophone to talk to his daughter. What I am truly waiting for is to see how closey Asimov’s Foundation trilogy approximates human history. – Steve

  23. ET3 – how cool is that! And it is appropriate it was presented at IdeaCity Toronto – that’s where I live, and we are currently embroiled in a mass-transit debate. Elon Musk admitted today he may have “shot himself in the foot” by revealing his plans for the Hyperloop too early, but I feel the opposite is true. High-profile visionaries such as Musk actually help awaken public awareness, and also allow the spotlight to shine on others, such as ET3, which may help penetrate the political fog and NIMBYism that so often obscures timely progress.

  24. Elon musk is a visionary and a great entrepreneur that started up two different billion dollar companies. I Believe it can connect the world together, why not. They have the technology to get it done. The governments should work together and put these brilliant ideas into play
    , because we are the future, that the past used to talk about!

  25. I became a ‘naysayer’ when I read Musk’s .pdf file and saw his cost estimations. As someone who’s been involved in large-scale construction projects, I doubt the $6 billion Musk cited as the total cost of his proposal would cover the cost of materials, let alone actually build it and buy any land that might be needed. Having a ‘great idea’ is nice, but if that idea is based on false assumptions, it’s frankly worthless.

  26. An excellent comment. Projects of any scale always deserve realistic cost projections. However I think what people like Mr. Musk do is to light a spark in the imaginations of others, much like JFK did with his “to the moon in this decade” speech. By his own admission, Mr. Musk might not be the one to spearhead this project, and many others have already proposed vacuum-assisted or mag-lev transit systems in the past. It is the star power of people like him, however that can become the catalyst to action. So I would suggest that there is a difference between a true nay-sayer – the type of person who says “we don’t need that,” or “it’s stupid just because it’s new” – and someone like yourself who would be more likely to deliver a more realistic argument either for or against an idea based on fact and experience. Innovation exists basically where visionaries and engineers meet, and maybe fight it out a bit. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog entry, Alex. I truly value your opinion. – Steve

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