Musk & His Hyperloop Announcement, Take Two

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Judging from the latest news cycle, Elon Musk is the most powerful person on earth right now. With just a few tweets, he pushed everything else in the overnight news cycle into the background. His claim that he has “verbal government approval” to build a Hyperloop system from New York to Washington, DC, spurred the news media to try to find out exactly who had given the approval. A blizzard of phone calls to state and local authorities by the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, the National Inquirer, and the South Succotash Tattler all failed to turn up a single clue.

Clueless In Philadelphia

Elon Musk at NGA“We’re asking around to see if anyone at SEPTA knows more about this, but so far have not come up with anything,” a spokesperson for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said. SEPTA’s service area included Philadephia — one of the proposed stops on Musk’s Northeast Corridor plan. Pennsylvania  Governor Tom Wolf has no clue what Musk is talking about, although the idea intrigues him and he would like more information, if Musk ever has time to call him. “The New York State Department of Transportation did not give verbal approval for a hyperloop,” a spokesperson told the BBC.

So The Beeb reached out to the White House to see if anyone there would admit to being the source of Musk’s mysterious “verbal approval” claim. Some have suggested the Office of American Innovation, which is headed by Jared Kushner, #FakePresident Trump’s son in law, might be behind this. A spokesperson for the agency would say only that “promising conversations to date” with Mr Musk had taken place and that it is “committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector.”

The Boring Company Statement

A spokesman for The Boring Company did tell the BBC it intends to break ground on the project this year. “The Boring Company has had a number of promising conversations with local, state and federal government officials. With a few exceptions, feedback has been very positive and we have received verbal support from key government decision-makers for tunnelling plans, including a Hyperloop route from New York to Washington DC. We look forward to future conversations with the cities and states along this route and we expect to secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year.”

Overnight, Musk himself offered no clarification of his rather bizarre “verbal approval” claim, but did tweet his legion of followers, exhorting them to call their elected officials to show their support for the idea.

He also sent a direct message via Twitter to the editors of Wired, which read, “A verbal yes is obviously not the same as a formal, written yes. It will probably take another four to six months to get formal approval, assuming this receives support from the general public.” His message went on to say, “I think (the hyperloop project) will make a major positive difference to anyone traveling that route, so I hope people do take the time to let their elected officials know that they want this to happen.”

Several hours ago, Mr Musk also clarified that the verbal approval was on the federal level.

Is There A Hyperloop In Your Future?

Perhaps. The folks at Wired are exceedingly skeptical that this untried, unproven technology is going to happen anytime soon. There are hundreds if not thousands of political districts involved along the proposed route. Expecting all those politicians to agree on anything in today’s age of bombast and faith-based governing seems supremely unlikely.

As Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institute tells Wired, Musk’s verbal approval “means effectively nothing.” Going on: “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” In other words, even assuming the Trumpeter in Chief is a cheerleader for the Hyperloop idea means little in the overall scheme of things.

As several people mentioned in their comments to our story from yesterday on Musk’s proposal, there are all sorts of things underground that Musk’s tunnels could interfere with. Believe it or not, some folks on the East Coast don’t have city water, for instance, and rely on wells for their drinking water. I have just such a well at my home and it is more than 450′ deep.

Others such as “Stoli Cat” point out that three quarters of a million passengers use trains between NYC and DC every day. Hundreds of thousands more drive between the two cities. Even if there are, as Musk suggests there will be, a dozen or more elevators in each city center providing access to the Hyperloop waiting below, how many people can a dozen elevators carry during a day? And what happens at peak travel times? The plan Musk has in mind doesn’t seem capable of handling anything but a small percentage of the people who might want to utilize such a system.

Cuanto Cuesta?

Musk also conveniently omits any mention of cost. Who is going to pay for all this? And how much will it cost to use this 21st century miracle? Musk claims the Hyperloop will cost far less to build than high-speed rail but no confirmation of that assertion exists. Will America be asked to spend taxpayer dollars on a system that only the wealthy can afford?

It is true that the railroads and canal companies once brought affordable transportation to large segments of the country. But open land was in abundance then. The federal government owned most of it, thanks to the generosity of Native Americans, and was happy to give it away — including the mineral rights beneath it — to the robber barons who had their sights set on Promontory Point, Utah. Musk may think that by going underground he will essentially be acquiring the right of free passage beneath all that lies above the route. But those landowners may have different ideas. When there’s a buck to be made, people can get mighty ornery in a hurry.

Is Musk Delusional?

Will the Hyperloop ever come to be? Will it be capable of moving enough people to make a dent in the congestion within and between major cities? Will it be privately financed or benefit from public funding? Those are some serious threshold questions, so we turned to our resident Zen master for advice. “We’ll see,” she said.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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