Monday, May 25, 2015

Who's Right on Elon Musk's Hyperloop, and Does it Matter?

Three years after first releasing his idea for a "fifth mode of transportation," Elon Musk is finally planning to test his Hyperloop system - a plan that has tech gurus fawning and economists gawking.

To the unfamiliar, Hyperloop may seem like something out of Matt Groening's "Futurama" - people glide safely and comfortably at high speeds through pneumatic tubes that carry them all over. And really, Hyperloop isn't so different: capsules containing passengers move through a continuous steel tube maintained at a partial vacuum. The capsules float on air-bearing "skis" across thin layers of pressurized air, never touching the floor or walls of the tube. No touching means no friction - and no friction means it can go really, really fast.

This impression of a Hyperloop capsule features an air compressor on the front, passenger compartment in the middle, battery compartment at the back, and air-bearing skis below.
Indeed, Hyperloop is predicted to be the fastest form of transportation since the Concorde, moving people up to 760 miles per hour. That's a heck of a lot faster than the 125 mph Amtrak's Acela train reaches in New Jersey, and also speedier than the best of high-speed rail - from Japan's shinkansen to France's TGV.

That last fact is particularly important since Musk is proposing Hyperloop as an alternative to California's high-speed rail project. That project has become bogged down in eminent domain cases, declining public support, and a lack of private financing. Hyperloop, Musk and his allies would have us believe, could be built much cheaper than HSR, move faster between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and recapture California's collective imagination.

But importantly, some of those assertions are debatable. On price, Musk says his system could be built for $6 billion, far below HSR's current price tag of $68 billion. Moreover, because of the low land acquisition (Hyperloop is much thinner than rail) and construction costs, tickets would be as low as $20 - about the same I pay to ride Metro-North from Connecticut to New York City. But economists - including one at UC-Berkeley - argue that this prediction is entirely unrealistic, and that construction costs and ticket prices would be closer to $100 billion and $1,000, respectively. As an Economist editorial points out, "Nor is there any reason to believe that Hyperloop would be immune to the hypertrophication of cost that every other grand infrastructure project seems doomed to suffer."

The five-mile test project, meanwhile, is slated to cost $100 million; how far off that prediction is from reality will give us a clue as to who's more right about the complete project's price point.

A rendering of the Hyperloop test track.

On speed, there's no arguing that Hyperloop would be, if successful, far faster than HSR. But it, too, may suffer from mission creep. In order to reduce costs, segments of California's HSR that were supposed to run on their own dedicated tracks will now share tracks with freight and existing passenger trains, thus slowing HSR down substantially for those stretches. Similarly, the Hyperloop may drop passengers off on the outskirts of the city, rather than in the middle of city proper, in order to reduce costs; this would increase travel time as passengers would then have to hop on a train or bus to get into the city.

And are Californians really excited about Hyperloop? I haven't been able to find any polling other than one showing 52% of the state now opposing HSR, but not testing it against the alternative. One thing's for sure: Hyperloop would not have the support of Governor Brown's office. Brown has been a proponent - the proponent - of HSR since the 80's. It will be interesting to see what happens to the project once the term-limited Brown leaves office, but until then Hyperloop will likely be without the kind of influential political champions that brought HSR to California.

There's one final aspect of Hyperloop that should give potential supporters pause: the actual experience of riding the thing. I'll quote Wikipedia directly, since they did a great job of synthesizing the concerns:

Some critics of the Hyperloop concept have focused on the possibly unpleasant and frightening experience of riding in a narrow sealed, windowless capsule, inside a sealed steel tunnel, that is subjected to significant acceleration forces, high noise levels due to air being compressed and ducted around the capsule at near-sonic speeds, and the vibration and jostling created as the capsule shoots through a tube that is not perfectly smooth or level.... At speeds approaching 900 feet per second (270 m/s), even 1 millimeter (0.039 in) deviations from a straight path would add considerable buffeting and vibration. With no provisions for passengers to stand, move within the capsule, use a restroom during the trip, or get assistance or relief in case of illness or motion sickness, the potential for a seriously unpleasant travel experience would likely be higher than in any other popular form of public transport.
Apparently Musk's design allows for lateral G-forces of up to .5 Gs, comfortably higher than the .2-G level at which most people start to feel nauseous. Disney's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Busch Garden's SheiKra have similar levels. Does that sound like something you'd want to ride for 35 minutes?

Ultimately the debate over Hyperloop won't be settled until we see it in action. Perhaps the test track will come in on-budget and present a safe and reliable alternative to our broken and inadequate rail system. Perhaps not. Either way, we have very real problems with our transportation infrastructure that we need to address now, not at some undetermined point in the future. Hyperloop is an interesting notion, but for now its feasibility is too uncertain to be a practical path forward.

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