4 Reasons Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Could Tank

Don't expect to be riding one by 2020.

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Elon Musk

Rendering of a Hyperloop tube stretching from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Billionaires — so much pressure to deliver the ineffable, so many people to potentially disappoint. Last night was a little like the buildup to Dean Kamen’s “Ginger,” the press tripping over itself to hand entrepreneur Elon Musk a megaphone, as if waiting for a robed figure to descend from the rumor-clouded mountaintop carrying a phablet with the words “Thou shalt build a pneumatic tube that flings people between distant cities like bank deposit slips” scrolling across the screen.

Elon Musk’s so-called Hyperloop — a slender tube filled with pods that would zip along at hundreds of miles an hour spaced just moments apart — isn’t so far-fetched, steeped as it is in existing technology; indeed, some are saying Musk has invented nothing at all, that he’s merely taken existing tech and shuffled it around. Regardless, it’s hard not to be impressed with some of that shuffling: Fans that suck air from in front of the train to compressors that fire it from the tube bottom to keep the air pressure low? Using the air “cushion” generated by such a system to “levitate” the train a bit like a puck floating on an air hockey table? Solar panels along the tube’s top — including battery packs that store energy to offset cloudy days — that provide “far in excess of the energy needed to operate”?

The idea is that you’d be able to walk (or drive — Musk is proposing being able to transport vehicles, too) into one of these pods every so many minutes, like queuing for the world’s fastest ride at the world’s longest amusement park. As Doug put it last night, “The concept seems like how a roller coaster works: line up, file into an open seat, buckle up and hold on.”

So the question isn’t whether it’s possible — all kinds of crazy-cool-sounding things are possible – it’s whether it’s a good enough idea, or the best in an ocean of grand ones (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t — just putting the question out there). The difference between a guy like Elon Musk and all the other big thinkers pitching society-changing inventions, is that he has the wherewithal to make an idea like the Hyperloop happen.

Or does he? Consider some of the more obvious (and a few less so) obstacles.

Musk claims the Hyperloop would be safer than flying, but has he thought it through?

Nothing’s perfectly safe, of course, so the question’s really whether something like this would be safe enough. Musk has already attempted to deflect worries about natural events like earthquakes, noting that the tube could be built to at least the specifications earthquake-resistant buildings are; that it would be “immune to wind, ice, fog, and rain”; that since the propulsion system is part of the tube itself, it’s inherently speed-limited by the design of each section (you’re essentially removing weather and human control error, he says); and since the pods are completely contained within the tube — to say nothing of the lack of physical rails — train-style derailment is impossible.

But while the Hyperloop would include safety systems, from oxygen masks (in the event of depressurization) to emergency brakes and retractable wheels in each pod, systems like these aren’t impervious to glitches, power outages, battery backup failures, etc., and the margin for error here sounds relatively slim: In a plane, you have the entire sky at your disposal (even then, air-based collisions can and do occur); in the Hyperloop, you’d have up to 28-passenger cars departing every two minutes on average or every 30 seconds during peak-use periods, putting up to 70 or so pods in a tube connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco and more than twice that number in a 1,000-mile version. Given their speeds and departure intervals, they’d be separated by appreciable distances, but what happens if there’s a problem that forces the pods to slow or come to a stop and the brakes fail in even one?

The most serious concern, however, which Musk glosses over in his alpha paper (see section 4.5.6, “Human Related Incidents”), would be terrorism, say someone managed to smuggle a bomb onboard, or fired a rocket at the tube (or one of its bracing pylons) from a distance. Remember, we’re talking about tubes that could cover up to 1,000 mile stretches. Think about our southern border security issues, then imagine if that border also included hundreds or even thousands of potential human targets — locked inside tubing that might vector through huge swathes of remote areas — at any given moment.

Elon Musk now says he might build a prototype, but he’s got a lot going on.

Musk’s initial position was that he didn’t have time to build the Hyperloop, but as All Things D reports, he’s backpedaled a bit by saying, “I think it might help if I created a prototype.”

Elon Musk is CEO and chief designer at SpaceX, a private aerospace company he founded in 2002 with around 3,000 employees and dead serious plans to establish human colonies on Mars. Musk is also CEO, chairman and product architect of Tesla Motors, the electric car company in the news recently for its unexpectedly strong earnings and again earlier this year for Musk’s very public dustup with New York Times‘ critic John Broder. Last but not least, Musk is the chairman of a public energy company called SolarCity. In Musk’s own words, talking to Businessweek about the Hyperloop: “I wish I had not mentioned it. I still have to run SpaceX and Tesla, and it’s fucking hard.”

The point being the guy’s already overcommitted — what are the odds he’ll have the time, energy and resources to bring a project this audacious to fruition?

The Hyperloop may have heat dissipation and wind concerns.

Noticed by USA Today, energy analyst Sam Jaffe, writing on the Navigant Research blog, says Musk’s Hyperloop has at least two potential show-stopping issues the innovator doesn’t address in his paper. According to Jaffe, who specializes in energy storage technologies and applications:

The biggest concern with this plan has to do with temperature. The pod will be compressing air and expelling it downwards and backwards. All that air compression creates an enormous amount of heat, which can damage the pod and its machinery. Musk’s solution is to add to each pod a water tank that will capture that heat and turn it into steam to be collected at the next station. Although the thermodynamic calculations are correct, a small pod with only a few cubic feet of room for a heat exchanger leaves little space for an efficient exchange of heat. That means that the flow of water must be increased, requiring a lot more water on board. There may be an elegant solution for this challenge, but it’s not in Musk’s current paper.

Wind stress is another challenge. Any structure elevated 100 feet off the ground is going to be under a lot of wind pressure, which will act on it in weird and sometimes multiple directions. If that structure is a heavy tube stretching hundreds of miles in either direction, you effectively have a big sail. Will the concrete pylons be powerful enough to resist that pressure?

The annals of invention history are cluttered with bold ideas that went nowhere.

Think Edison’s Diamond Disc or Tesla’s coils. Think Betamax, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, New Coke, Microsoft’s Clippy, and Segway. Think Ludwig Dürr’s hydrogen blimp and Da Vinci’s gyrocopter. While Musk deserves accolades for putting his idea out to the public, open source-style, the chances of the Hyperloop happening when the actual costs are tallied, timeframes double-checked and potential political red tape measured…well, despite Musk’s claims that you could turn the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco version of this system around inside seven years, I wouldn’t make plans to ring 2020 in riding this thing.

29 comments
tonyalvarado440
tonyalvarado440

The Hyperloop looks to be an exciting option for fast distance traveling, but similar to current public transportation options like San Jose’s light rail system or Caltrain, it relies on the public to travel to and from specific destinations. Our BiModal Glideway would be a better solution as it would provide the same high speed distance travel, but allow drivers the freedom to go from door to door during their commute.

jnespoli118
jnespoli118

This article reeks of sour grapes from the Broder-vs-Tesla saga.

Garbage reporting at its finest.

rhmendelson
rhmendelson

Wow...I'm shocked that a major news organization would be so discouraging towards an extremely innovative and creative approach to transportation! Particularly when the world is still affected by the economic recession, a new model could stimulate research, development and production, and lift the country and the world out of the doldrums. We should be supporting new ideas, testing their validity, and funneling them into society to change our world for the better. This is an exciting concept that should be explored...

SHOCKPROOF
SHOCKPROOF

That's what they've said about the Automobile, Airplane, Submarine, Space-shuttle, etc, etc, etc! I think, American ingenuity can solve any scientific/engineering issues & problems. Don't be so negative, Matt, cuz If negativity always wins, we will still be using rocks to break those nuts...and no pants. (-:  

PacificSage
PacificSage

Fine, Matt, the US won't build it. The Germans will (and patent all the technology) Or maybe the Chinese, or the French, or the Japanese.  (etc.)

You just have fun playing your video games while the US politically & economically melts down.......



DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

My only question here, considering what's his name has SAID he is NOT actually going to build the thing, is why is there all this hype about it?  It's like EVERYWHERE and NOTHING is going to come of it and it will take 20 years to get it built even if they started the process last year.

Basically, "a robed figure to descend from the rumor-clouded mountaintop carrying a phablet with the words “Thou shalt build a pneumatic tube that flings people between distant cities like bank deposit slips” scrolling across the screen", then tossed it on the ground and said, "Just kidding." and walked away.

When someone actually steps up and says, "I'm going to build this.", THEN tell me about it.  THAT'S when it's ACTUALLY newsworthy.  But this guy basically just cleared his throat, said, "I have a not terribly original idea," and a whole media circus erupted because he has more money in his bank account than most people do.  I hope the media doesn't play to this less than reality kind of show every time someone with money gets an idea.

"Mansions In The Sky!" from FOX.

The media seriously needs to get a grip. This story should have been buried in some small, obscure sci-tech magazine at BEST.

jimmyzane
jimmyzane

Matt - your opinion piece offers nothing of value. The challenges you half hazardly list are really without merit. All you are saying is "why do anything that is difficult". This post should be erased from existence.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

Science fiction writers have been writing about evacuated tube levitated trains for over fifty years.

The idea isn't new, what is new is that it is a remarkably practical design.

Implemented the way he is talking about is probably not the best first use of it though.

A smaller scale shorter route system, maybe SF to Sacramento with a lower schedule and at lower speeds would be a lot more practical for the first line and it would give you a chance to work out a lot of the inevitable bugs before you tried ramping up to a lot more problematic 800mph.

At those speeds, the potential for truly spectacular and catastrophic failure could derail something like this for all of time (pun intended).

Even if SF to Sacramento wasn't a good place to start (already too built up possibly) it should be possible to identify somewhere in the US that a 100 to 200 mile tube line would be a real asset.

seastar886
seastar886

Elon:  Please keep working on your Tesla car/truck/boat/bus/train/airplane, but not Hyperloop.

seastar886
seastar886

I will go to from SFO to LA once every 10 years, and I will not take hyperloop even if it is available. I do not like it at all. But I am waiting for your Gen III Tasla car everyday, and I need to use it everyday!!!

engineer.singh
engineer.singh

Everything you mentioned are basic engineering design problems that can come with any major transportation medium. Elon Musk is one of the most brilliant and innovative engineer and successful CEO of our times, and solving these problems will be not a big deal for his team. Tesla Motors and SpaceX is a perfect example of ideas, which others were taking as unproductive, risky or as you said - 'Tankable'

I expect Time to appreciate innovative ideas rather than making fun of them

MontiraWarran
MontiraWarran

I don't know that I need to travel from SF to L. A. in 30 minutes.  I'd prefer to enjoy the journey--whether it takes 1.5 hours by plane or however many hours by train.  

DaveB
DaveB

The thought of a "bomb" on board was completely thought about in the designs, and has a safety mechanism built into the cars should loss of pressure in the tube occur.  Did you even READ the PDF?  And your fourth point applies to ANY technology, which is just plain stupid to even bring up here.

RobertaRobinson
RobertaRobinson

another possible problem not mentioned is how many people would want to sit in a tiny pod surrounded by thick glass,going high speeds and wondering if they will become trapped. there are alot of claustrophobic people out there, I would never use one, I prefer my car and I have yet to see a viable alternative where you can go when you want which way you want when to stop where to go when you want and in privacy and be able to take your stuff too. every option they give is about mass transit of cattle, not of private people living their own lives as they please and not be crammed into stack and pack um housing. this type of future is not for me, I rather be outside in the sun with lots of elbow room where everyone is seperated by trees, grass and crittors and lots of privacy and plenty of beauty, cities suck, they will never be able to match the country in terms of human happiness, freedom, creativity, and some self sufficiecy like growing your own food, that sorta thing. but my guess that is the idea, get people out ofhte country so they become totally dependant on their jobs and gov who can decide where you go when you go, how much freedom you can have what job you willhave how much food you can have how much space your can live in how much privacy (none) you can have and how much of the fruits of your labor you can have. and oh yea and that you won't be allowed a car either, If I would meander a guess, they will wall the cities too so you need permission to leave. yikes!!

LetMeGuess
LetMeGuess

Musk compared this to Space Mountain, the one ride hat scared the s**t out of me tose hard things inches from yourself in the dark, but I wish him well...

fencer1964
fencer1964

Concept: get Disney to sign on. 1, These guys do amazing things with engineering safety invisibly into rides that amaze, and 2, they are masters of people-moving.  One of the major issues of the hyperloop is getting passengers and cargo on and off fast enough to keep the stream of pods flowing.

Re: heat build up: radiator fins on the outside of the tube, possibly linked to ground-based heat sinks may provide a partial solution.

JohnMann
JohnMann

"some are saying Musk has invented nothing at all, that he’s merely taken existing tech and shuffled it around."

Sounds like some pretty dumb "some". 

That's like saying NASA didn't invent the space shuttle because they didn't invent the wheel. So many modern inventions are created off of previous inventions. Dumb, dumb, dumb "Somes".

LetMeGuess
LetMeGuess

Terroism was thr first thing I thought aboutas well.

RandR10
RandR10

All of the reasons listed here for why the "Hyperloop" could tank are very similar to the reasons why any civil engineering project could fail.  I'm sure that some prototyping and scaling of this idea would ferret out whether it's technically feasible, and at relatively low cost.  I applaud Musk's proposal of something that could improve on what's currently out there.

Kiltedbear
Kiltedbear

@seastar886 Elon is a problem solver. He often has multiple "irons in the fire". Fast travel is a major problem that needs to be addressed. When I first heard about this loop, Elon was saying NYC to LA in 45 minutes. That would be amazing. What i find amazing is that it isn't even designed yet and magazines like Time are trying to say it's a bad idea. But like most problem solvers, media is going to say it's a bad idea until it has been proven to be a brilliant idea.

PacificSage
PacificSage

@seastar886 

Well, since YOU"RE not gonna use it, we should throw away those plans.........

MontiraWarran
MontiraWarran

What considerations are there for people who are prone to motion sickness?

cclasby
cclasby

@RobertaRobinson People already sit in claustrophobic conditions for travel. In airplanes. And this is 30 minutes. Cars are terrible, and maxed out in terms of scalability. If you think traffic is bad now, think about in 10 years. This idea shouldn't be dismissed.

vpaulsmithjr
vpaulsmithjr

@LetMeGuess Things aren't just inches from you in the dark. They are all a lot farther than you think.

cclasby
cclasby

@LetMeGuess Yeah, that's the first thing to think about. Something that is less of a threat than shark attack lightning bolts attacking.

hannesl
hannesl

@MontiraWarran What do you mean? You know that Elon Musk has stated that as a passenger you will feel less acceleration than in both an airplane and train, right?