Elon Musk's Futuristical Napkin Drawing of a Mass Transit System

The Hyperloop is awesome. But...
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He already has spaceship and electric vehicle companies, and he'd like to fly to Mars, but Elon Musk has another idea to bring us closer to the comic-book future. The Hyperloop is a pod-based transport system that Musk's been toying with, and he revealed more details today.

He gave the most information to BusinessWeek's Ashlee Vance, sketching out the design and answering questions about the physics of the Hyperloop.

He describes the design as looking like a shotgun with the tubes running side by side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end. These tubes would be mounted on columns 50 to 100 yards apart, and the pods inside would travel up to 800 miles per hour.

Musk also posted a 57-page PDF proposal called "Hyperloop Alpha," calling it an "open source transportation project."

Among the details contained therein, we find the route that he proposes, which would be more accurately described as Los Angeles to Hayward (not San Francisco). Heyward is a heck of a long way from the Mission (but not too far from Musk's Tesla factory). At the speed Musk is proposing, that would take 38 minutes.

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So, two thoughts on the Hyperloop, which I find to be in tension. First, like anyone who has ever read a sci-fi novel or made the sound "pew-pew" with a raygun made from thumb and forefinger, I think is fantastically cool and wonderful. A pod system that shoots you to LA! Amazing! Even the drawings evoke that '50s can-do futurism. There's none of that dark '60s/'70s technoanxiety in this proposal. None.

Which brings me to thought two: I worry that more fully baked transportation projects might be put on hold in hopes that Musk's still-fictional idea works out. Musk's proposal, because of who Musk is, could serve as a poison dart for California's high-speed rail, and then nothing comes of it, leaving the state with an outdated passenger rail network and no Hyperloop to make up for it.

Musk says he could build a Hyperloop system to transport people for $6 billion or one capable of transporting people and cars for $10 billion.

California's long-suffering high-speed rail project has been projected to cost $68 billion. In part because they have to acquire 1,100 different pieces of land. Just Fresno to Bakersfield, a little over 100 miles, is supposed to cost $7 billion for high-speed rail.

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It's not that there couldn't be cheaper ways of doing things. I'm sure there are. But in comparing Musk's plan with the California HSR proposal, we're looking at two very different levels of detail. Musk's is a sketch. The HSR proposal has been worked over by so many parties for years, and many more costs have been discovered lurking in the details of putting in a major transportation system in the second decade of the 21st century.

California's high-speed rail system may be a boondoggle. But Musk's estimate would be an unfair way to make that point.

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Take the $1 billion allotted for "land and permits" in Musk's plan. Assume that along the 700-miles of the Hyperloop, they can manage to buy just a skinny strip of land 500 feet wide. That'd still be 42,424 acres of land the Hyperloop would need to acquire right down the heart of California. Is that going to be possible? Is it reasonable? Sounds like a lot of lawyer's fees and contract work. But who knows?

UPDATE 8/13: Some people have said to me, "Musk's plan is to get a hold of land in the I-5 median, or alongside it, so they won't need to buy nearly that much land." Here's how Musk put it in his proposal: "By building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn." It's a nice idea, but that doesn't mean such an approach is going to be possible. How many people are going to want a newfangled, super high-speed transport system towering over California's biggest north-south artery? Imagine the insurance costs. And why would Caltrans turn over this right of way to the hyperloop? Here's the pro-California High-Speed Rail blog pointing out some other problems, too:

you'd still need to get Caltrans to sell its own right of way alongside or in the middle of Interstate 5, which is not going to be easy or free. And Musk is downplaying the challenge here when he points to I-5. Building in the Central Valley is the easy and (relatively) cheap part, including land acquisition, whether it's a bullet train or a Hyperloop. How exactly is Musk going to get these tubes from the Valley to downtown SF and downtown LA without causing disruption?

That's the thing with Musk's plan, and its cost projections: there is a lot we don't know, and a lot of assumptions baked into that low, low price. Until a lot more due diligence has been done, it doesn't make sense to just take Musk's plan at face value.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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