A Transitions Perspective on the Hyperloop

Elon Musk’s hyperloop looks pretty neat. But it will be challenging to implement, even if all the technical and financial problems are easily solved.

If you haven’t looked at Elon Musk’s prospective plan for the Hyperloop yet, you should. It’s a fascinating if somewhat far-fetched proposal for high-speed surface travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles which resembles the futuristic vacuum tube transportation system often popular in the 1970s, but it is made a bit more feasible by the fact that the tube is not a perfect vacuum. To avoid the buildup of air on the front of the vehicle, a mechanism resembling a jet engine intake will redirect the air from the front of the vehicle to the underside, where it will be used to provide a cushion of air levitating the vehicle a few millimeters above the bottom of the tube. Solar panels on top of tue tube will allow the system to be self-powering, and the projected journey time from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be a mere 35 minutes.

Reactions to the hyperloop have ranged from excitement to skepticism to outright dismissal. I can’t comment with any authority on the technical or financial aspects of the proposal, as I’m neither an engineer nor an economist. But I can talk a bit about other aspects of a hypothetical transition to a hyperloop-based transportation system. Transitions theory, or at least the subset of it that I work with, suggests six major aspects of the current transportation system that the hyperloop would have to contend with: Science, technology, finances, markets and user preferences, policy and culture. I’m going to consider the hyperloop from each of these perspectives.

Science and Technology

I’ve grouped these two facets of the system into one because in the case of the hyperloop, they both amount to roughly the same question: What research would have to take place in order to make the hyperloop more technically feasible, and how much capacity exists to carry out this research? The concept of technological trajectories comes into play here. Once businesses, policies, and society at large come to an agreement that a particular technology is the solution for a particular problem, research efforts in both science and technology will focus on questions relevant to that technology.

When the car became a dominant means of transportation, for example, it spurred research on internal combustion engines, tire traction, safety glass, road surfaces, and a range of related problems. Research labs were built, and university programs founded to study these things. The hyperloop does not have the benefit of any such structures. So we need ask how much we actually know about things moving at supersonic speeds on air cushions in small confined spaces? If, as I suspect, the answer to that question is “not much”, then Musk will have to work hard to attract the right minds away from more traditional forms of transportation and towards his system.

Finances

This one is pretty obvious. Musk estimates that they hyperloop will cost around 4 billion US dollars, though this figure has been hotly contested. If he funds this privately (see the policy heading for the public route), then he will need to convince investors that the hyperloop can provide a decent rate of return. This will be difficult, as no such thing has ever been built before.

I have a brainstorm about this problem: Build the first line to Las Vegas, rather than San Francisco. It would make a party weekend in Vegas far more convenient for Angelenos, and its novelty might fit in well with the Las Vegas party culture. This approach could attract some financial support from the casinos, who have fairly deep pockets and have a strong interest in bringing people to their isolated city more conveniently.

Markets and User Preferences

If the hyperloop performs as advertised, then it should function pretty well in the market. Elon Musk claims that it will be both faster and cheaper than trains and cars. If this is accurate, then it should function well in a purely economic sense.

The biggest problem I can find here is the last mile problem, which concerns the problem of moving passengers between local travel hubs, such as airports and train stations, and their specific origin or destination points. The hassle of the last mile has given travellers a preference for door to door transportation, which is normally provided by a private automobile. The hyperloop will have to contend with this. The plan to have a larger version that can carry cars onboard is a clever idea, but it will undoubtedly be more expensive and probably harder to load than the pedestrian only version. The Hyperloop should therefore be well connected to existing urban transit networks, if it is going to seriously compete with cars.

Policy

This is a big one. Musk wants to build the hyperloop down the length of California’s Highway 5. That means that multiple government agencies, as well as the California State congress will almost certainly be involved. Of course, this will be even more the case if Musk is hoping for any sort of state subsidy. Even if the route gets changed, the hyperloop will almost certainly be fighting an uphill battle for basic regulatory approval. It is therefore useful to think about what kind of interests might try and use policy as a way of opposing the hyperloop. Airlines will probably have something to say about it, as will car manufacturers, oil companies, and highway maintenance companies. Musk and his allies are unlikely to have the resources to contend with these entrenched interests, so the hyperloop will need a massive groundswell of public support to be accomodated by the relevant regulatory bodies.

Culture

Americans really like their cars. So strong is this force in American culture that some scholars have gone so far to describe it as a “cult of the road”. And within the United States, the cult of the road is unlikely to be much stronger anywhere else than it is in Southern California, which is probably the most car-dependent place on Earth. Cars are seen as symbols of masculinity, independence, and American patriotism, and the road trip is something of an American institution.

So it might be hard to convince Californians to abandon their cars for a big tube. The high-tech novelty of the hyperloop system will be somewhat useful in ameliorating this problem, but it will probably be insufficient on its own. I think that the most important thing that Musk could to to get over this cultural barrier is to ensure that the tube is transparent or has some kind of window. This will highlight the speed of the hyperloop in relation to the surrounding traffic in a very visceral way, which will likely have a positive cultural impact.

 

There is one other factor worthy of consideration here that does not fit into any of the categories above: that of celebrity. The initial surge of publicity enjoyed by hyperloop is evidence that Musk has considerable personal clout. It is worth remembering that many of the technological systems we currently take for granted were initially created by well-known public personalities such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, and Nicola Tesla.  More recently, figures like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Bill Gates have ushered in the computer revolution. Whether these peoples’ fame is a result of the systems they built or their systems are the result of their fame is hard to say, but perhaps celebrity is a positive influence on the growth of radical new technologies. I don’t think there has been any research done on this, but it is well worth looking into.

I have to conclude that the ultimate success of the Hyperloop is unlikely but not impossible. There are a number of very challenging obstacles in its path, but the right combination of celebrity, public support, technological novelty, luck could make it a reality. Even if the hyperloop fails, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss such radical ideas out of hand. Every single technology we take for-granted today was far-fetched at one point in history. We have always needed dreamers like Elon Musk, and with the present need for a more sustainable society, our need is greater than ever.

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