HyperLoop Hype

SUBHEAD: Hyperloop could totally work. But will it ever happen? Does that even matter?

By Margo Aguilar on 12 August 2013 for Gizmodo -

Image above: This cutaway shows how hyperloop capsules would run in elevated tubes. Power would come from solar arrays sitting atop the structure. From (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/tech/hyperloop-and-high-speed-trains/).

[IB Publisher's note: Gizmodo is an online hangout for Techno-Optimists. This followup article by Margo Aguilar attempts to answer some questions raised by her Monday puff piece, "This Could Change Transit Forever". Like: Is it ever likely to be built? We think a more fundamental question is: Does anyone really need to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles at 800 miles per hour? Note also that Elon Musk is so enamored with his own idea of HyperLoop that he suggests others actually figure out how to do it. ]

On Monday, Tesla Motors chief Elon Musk will finally reveal his concept for a high-speed transit system called Hyperloop.See (http://gizmodo.com/hyperloop-alpha-this-could-change-transit-forever-1112058546).

To understand Hyperloop, it's important to understand why it exists in the first place. It's an answer to a simple question: Are trains really the best we can do? Because, as anyone who's ever had an Amtrak ticket punched knows, trains in the United States are awful.

Trains failed in America because they're expensive and not really better than the alternatives. Amtrak's "high-speed" Acela trains are a prime offender. They're way more expensive than just the regular train (which itself is often more expensive than a plane to begin with), and on a trip from Washington DC to New York, it saves you a grand total of about a half-hour.

"For high-speed transit to catch on it's got to be better than the bus," says Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, a fellow in the in the Public and Urban Policy program at the The New School. "The bus sucks." Some people like Amtrak from New York to DC, but there's a reason so many successful bus companies have cropped up in the last decade covering the same route. They're not great. But the train is not good enough to justify the cost.

Among countries with established intrastate transit systems, bad trains are also a uniquely American problem. Amtrak lacks the speed as well as the cool jetsetting feel of trains in Europe and Japan. Consider this admittedly cheesy advertisement concept video for the Frecciarossa 1000 train, which is on the tracks now in Italy. If this is the Ferrari of trains, the Acela is a beat-up Pinto.

And yet the proposed high-speed rail line in California isn't a big enough step forward by many accounts. It's not using the fancy magnetic levitation technology being implemented in places like Japan and Germany, which will allow trains to fly down the tracks at over 300 mph. The trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take 2 hours and 38 minutes, an average speed of 164 miles-per-hour, which is pretty zippy compared to what we've had in the United States before, but not all that impressive by global standards. And as Musk points out, it's not even really energy-efficient, when you consider the per-passenger energy expenditure.

The grand total? $70 billion, which is a lot of money to spend on anything, but especially on yesterday's tech. Musk sees the plan as a huge waste of money, and thus, the Hyperloop: 700 mph, 35 minutes, $6 billion, and energy neutral. Shin-pei Tsay, Director of Research and Development the startup TransitCenter sums up Musk's response to high-sped rail. "It's an extreme solution to an unacceptable situation." It sounds like the future we deserve—and on paper it's a future we could have, too.

Full Speed Ahead
What's most encouraging about Musk's plans is that as futuristic as they seem in aggregate, there's nothing especially new about them when broken down piece by piece. Conceptually, he's drawing on more than a century of research into pneumatic trains, and thousands of miles-per-hour transit. In fact, his 700 mph goal is relatively conservative compared to the theoretical limits of for tubed transit.

Money Only Goes So Far
An underplayed part of Hyperloop's appeal isn't just that it's achievable; it's also, Musk insists, affordable. He's operating under the assumption that the only reason people will want to try his technology instead of another is because it will save money and energy. That's why he went with the more affordable air bearings instead of magnetic levitation, and why he's positioning it as a $6-10 billion counterpoint to California's proposed $70 billion high-speed rail project.

Musk's reasoning makes sense to a point; these are days of austerity, and big public expenditures are bad politics. Then again, so are technological gambles, cost overruns, and eminent domain. All of which will come part and parcel with the Hyperloop package.

If the Hyperloop doesn't happen, it won't be because of the proposed price tag. It'll be because convincing people and the government that this is a good enough idea will be very tough.

At least, that's why Marshall from the magnetic laboratory is skeptical. "These projects require a large public sector commitment," he explained, with an illustration from his own recent history. During the aughts, there was a serious proposal to build a state-of-the-art, 324-mile maglev train line in Florida from Tampa to Miami. The plan got $2.4 billion in federal funding, but died a political death when Governor Rick Scott refused the money. It wasn't just a problem of proving to people that it would be good transit. The plan just didn't have the public support to make it happen.

And even if you do build enough political goodwill, it won't necessarily cut through the red tape. Dave King, a professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, told me he's surprised Musk's proposal doesn't mention a regulatory structure for the project, which Hyperloop will almost certainly require.

Cars, air travel, trains, are all tediously regulated, and that's a good thing because it makes them safe—and whoever is building this will want to be damn sure its safe. The Concorde was grounded for over a year after its infamous 2000 crash. More recently, the long-delayed, over-budget Boeing 787 Dreamliner's mass deployment has been repeatedly delayed because it can't stop spontaneously catching fire. And these incidents all happened despite an intensive regulatory framework designed specifically to prevent them.

Now imagine creating an entirely new regulatory structure for an entirely new technology. What regulatory body would Hyperloop even fall under? Everything from the design of the tubes to the pods need to be exhaustively tested, not just by the designers, but also by the government. And that's going to require a level of political will—and taxpayer money—that only massive public support or Kennedy-like leadership can generate. Musk cannot do this by the force of his personality—or wallet—alone.

In fact, this is exactly why that proposed high-speed rail line might still seem preferable even after Hyperloop's introduction. Trains are conservative. They're not too fast, they use technology we're familiar with, they stop frequently enough to make everyone happy. A known quantity is always an easier sell.

Travel Without a Cause?
There needs to be a serious conversation about whether the Hyperloop is even something that people need or want. In order for people to embrace high-speed transit it's got to be some combination of cheaper, faster, and more comfortable than what came before it. That's why high-speed transit works in Europe, and it's Hyperloop's only chance of succeeding here.

Currently, driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles ain't cheap; figure $50 depending on gas prices and fuel efficiency. If Musk can pull off the Hyperloop for $105 a ticket like he says he can, it would be competitively priced, but not overwhelmingly so given that an hour-long flight from SF to LA costs under $200, day of. According to King, Hyperloop may be the solution to a problem no one actually has: "It's not all that clear that time-saving is all that big of a deal. It's not that hard to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles."

Indeed, take a look at the numbers, and you start to wonder if the money wouldn't be better spent on regional transit. The estimated daily ridership for the California High Speed Rail is 260,000 people, which is pretty middling considering that the San Francisco's BART alone moves some 380,000 people every day. What's more, Hyperloop would only serve a fraction of that 260,000 population because it doesn't include all of the intermediate stops.

And even if Hyperloop did save you enough time and money to make it a viable option, what kind of ride would it be? Musk's technology may be sound, but beyond explaining that a trip in one of his pods won't be a wild, vomit-inducing pain, he hasn't addressed issues like, say, comfort. Or legroom. Or how and where one might pee.

In its current incarnation, Hyperloop feels coldly efficient, like Musk is stuffing you in a can and shooting you down a windowless tunnel of doom. When you think about the future you want, it's usually got a view doesn't it? Speed is one thing, but as King points out, no one will ride something if it feels like you're being shunted through a tube like a bullet. "You only want to feel speed in a convertible."

Musk's plan should be heavily discussed and carefully considered. It'll be exciting to see how subsequent designs push the idea even further, refining and perfecting an already sound idea. The technological ambition and courage behind Hyperloop are unimpeachable. Ambition, know-how, and funding don't mean a thing if you don't have the right kind of support. And right now, it's hard to see how Musk gets it.


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