How did such a stupid idea get even this far along?


I think we’re going to have to accept the fact the the sole real talent of billionaires is for grifting. Case in point: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which just had a “successful” test. You’d think someone would notice the word “HYPE” in the name.

Shocking news! In an incredible breakthrough for American mass-transit engineering, the transportation technology company Virgin Hyperloop this past weekend successfully moved two people 500 meters across the barren Las Vegas desert at a top speed of just over 100 mph, setting a new world record for the absolute most pitiful thing anyone not named “Elon Musk” has ever tried to pass off as “high-speed rail.”

Now watch an executive try very hard to inflate the stock price with unbelievable predictions.

You know what I’d like? A restoration of regular train service at a reasonable price. We had trains running on a routine schedule between Morris and the Twin Cities in the 1960s! I guess the rails have degraded so much that they’re no longer compatible with passenger service anymore, but if we can’t get simple maintenance of existing rail infrastructure, what makes these Muskians think we can get state and municipal support for his pie-in-the-sky, mostly nonfunctional and useless Hypeloop shell game? Even if we had connections between major urban centers, where’s the rest of the transportation support?

I hope the stock price of all of the companies associated with that clowning fraud Musk collapse.

Comments

  1. InitHello says

    Elongated Muskrat is like someone who just smoked the fattest reefer ever, and then was all “what if … roads … but underground

  2. says

    if we can’t get simple maintenance of existing rail infrastructure, what makes these Muskians think we can get state and municipal support for his pie-in-the-sky, mostly nonfunctional and useless Hypeloop shell game? Even if we had connections between major urban centers, where’s the rest of the transportation support?

    While they’re certainly interested in selling in North America, the long-distance Hyperloop systems aren’t for us. They’re for the Arabian peninsula first, where there are already contracts to build the things. They’ve got shitloads of money & no rail infrastructure, so I suppose it’s attractive to them in that superficial sense.

    But of course, that’s not nearly all the attraction. It’s a prestige project. Like building the Burj Khalifa in a country with plenty of open, flat land not needed for agriculture. It’s a vanity project. China recently built a Maglev train. Japan has the Bullet. Europe has the TGV. Saudi & the Emirates all want big, vanity infrastructure projects and none of them have a functioning national rail system yet.

    So, sure, they’ll make noise about Portland => Seattle => Vancouver, and even more noise about Vegas => LA => The Bay Area, but for the next 20-30 years they aren’t actually expecting to sell it to anyone other than oil rich nations with no competing rail system and lots of cheap-ass land.

  3. mailliw says

    The Inter City Express trains here in Germany reach 300kph (185 mph), carry far more than two people and you can look out of the window.

    Also instead of being excited about the experience as in the video you can sit quietly reading the newspaper.

    The magnetic levitation rail project was abandoned here because it was too expensive and unproven – but also because you have to build a whole new infrastructure to accomodate it.

    The advantage of high speed trains is that though they can only reach top speeds on specially built tracks, they can run on ordinary tracks too -. neither Transrapid or Hyperloop can do that.

    However we can probably expect our blitheringly incompetent transport minister Andreas Scheuer to get excited about Hyperloop as a distraction from the billions of taxpayers’ money he has spent on his failed Autobahn toll plan. Why is this man still in office?

  4. ethicsgradient says

    This is “Virgin Hyperloop” (though Branson seems to have little to do with it beyond providing the brand name), not Elon Musk.

  5. mailliw says

    @2 Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Maglev was going to be the next big thing in Germany.

    I do miss the Bayerische Magnetschwebebahnvorbereitungsgesellschaft (Bavarian Society for the preparation for magnetic levitation railways), but only because that is such a wonderful name.

  6. remyporter says

    Don’t forget that a big part of the design ethos of the Hyperloop is that each pod only carries a handful of people, and thus Musk can have something akin to public transit that also doesn’t involve him brushing shoulders with the poors.

  7. says

    @mailliw
    That does sound like a fun name, even if I can’t pronounce it.

    As for this:

    The advantage of high speed trains is that though they can only reach top speeds on specially built tracks, they can run on ordinary tracks too -. neither Transrapid or Hyperloop can do that.

    Yeah, that’s a big part of what makes it more viable in the Arabian peninsula. There are no (well, few) ordinary tracks, so you really can’t save much by building something backwards-compatible. But really it’s the prestige project thing.

  8. nomadiq says

    The psychology of the Musk’s of the world and their supporters is exposed through engineering efforts like this. They have above average knowledge (not intelligence) of physics which leads to arrogance. The idea that ‘moving objects through air is STOOPID when we can just remove the air’, shows almost no understanding of anything beyond the concept of air resistance. As if air resistance is the only problem. When you know nothing, you know nothing. When you learn air resistance slows objects down, you know next to nothing. When your billions of dollars to solve this problem results in moving two people half a kilometer at a pace slower than my Corolla can, you have achieved nothing.

  9. Michael says

    Both Columbia and Bolivia have built overhead “cable tramways” that are efficient, time saving and cheap to build. (no tunnels or tearing up streets). These are the cable cars you see at ski resorts and amusement parks so the tech is old, but then so is the hyperloop stuff. So don’t say there are no new models for public transit. Or how about the “metrobus” systems used in Mexico and Brazil, super simple, run double length buses down designated lanes with stations where people pay when they get into the station and not spend time fumbling for their card or coins one by one as they get on where the bus driver is. Super cheap, no heavy construction costs and the tech works now. Both systems coulld be built tomorrow. How much would a tube that has to be perfectly maintained between Columbus and Pittsburgh cost…

  10. PaulBC says

    500m, huh? Did they at least travel back in time or breach an alternate universe along the way? Is anyone completely certain Elon Musk is not a Red Lectroid?

  11. po8crg says

    It’s supposed to eventually go at a thousand kilometres an hour, so we’ll see if it ever does anything useful.

    There is one new idea that Musk added that wasn’t idiotic (the compressor on the train that enables it to work in a partial vacuum rather than a near-total one). There are several that were utterly idiotic, above all the undersized turning circle (which is why you have to wear a seatbelt) and the undersized tunnel (which is why it only carries two people at a time). One of his stupid ideas (air-cushon lift rather than magnetic levitation) has already been abandoned.

    Hyperloop or other ultra-high-speed rail has several basic problems, and is only useful if it’s a lot faster than conventional high-speed rail. The big problems are:
    – the acceleration and braking are inferior, so it needs to have many fewer stops.
    – infrastructure costs a lot more and is incompatible with conventional rail, so you can’t just use existing track to get into a city; you have to build ultra-expensive urban infrastructure.
    – Junctions are enormously more difficult than normal rail switches (“points” in my native British English), take up a lot more space, cost a lot more, and can’t switch back and forth as quickly, which limits the numbers of trains that can pass through.

    Now, if you built a sensibly-sized hyperloop (ie one that could carry a real train) and you have a station every thousand kilometres, and those stations were also stations on regional high-speed rail networks, and the hyperloop actually makes it to the thousand kilometres an hour it’s supposed to be able to reach, then yes, it would be useful. You’d want either eight or nine stations in the USA (five in cities: New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Atlanta, three or four on out-of-town sites connected to multiple cities by conventional high-speed rail, one between Seattle and Portland, one in the Bay Area connected to San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento, one in Texas connected to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin, and the possible one being one in Central Florida, connected to Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville).

    But you need both the high-speed rail network to get you to those 8/9 stations from every other major city and the regional rail to get you to the high-speed rail. From Morris, you’d catch a regional train to Minneapolis – probably at about 140-160 km/h, so that’s about an hour and a half to two hours – and then get high-speed to the hub station in Chicago, travelling at about 300 km/h, so another two hours or so (it would probably route via Milwaukee). Then you could catch the hyperloop to a hub station in 1-3 hours (1 to NY, Atlanta, 2 to Denver, Florida, Texas, 3 to the West Coast), and then again high-speed to the nearest city to where you want to go and finally local rail or bus to your exact destination.

    But rail’s big advantage over flying – and this is true of both conventional high-speed rail and ultra-high-speed like hyperloop – is that you can put the station in the middle of a city, and you can’t put an airport there. That puts it at the centre of the urban transit system. Which means passengers get there much more easily. But you also can’t put a giant amount of car parking in the middle of a city the way you can at an airport. So you can’t do high-speed rail until you already have urban rail working. And you can’t do ultra-high-speed rail until you already have high-speed-rail working, because you can’t afford to build ultra-high-speed to every city (and it would be rubbish even if you could).

  12. PaulBC says

    Crip Dyke@2 That’s a really good point. I need to try “not for an American market” as an explanation more often. It makes sense. On the other hand, I think Elon Musk is just kind of a rich weirdo, so his ideas don’t always have to make business sense anywhere.

    I’m not a Musk-hater either. I think the Tesla brand has greatly improved the popular notion of an electric car. Others tried to move the need from “golf cart” to sports car, but Tesla was the first to succeed.

  13. billseymour says

    Sorry Hyperloop fans, planes that fly are still quicker than planes that don’t; and as far as I’m concerned, speed is the only reason to get on such a contraption.

    Also, increasing trains’ top speed is costly and doesn’t really accomplish much because a lot of time is lost making station stops.  Steel wheels on steel rails don’t provide much friction, and it takes quite some time to decelerate to zero and accelerate back to track speed.  High-speed trains seem to be faster, but mostly because they skip lots of intermediate stops.

    Also, speeding up slow track makes much more sense.  Increasing 20 mph track to 35 or 40, and increasing 45 mph track to 60 or so, would be much cheaper and give us a much bigger bang for the buck.

    I’m an avid rider of trains, but if I lived in Morris, it wouldn’t be my first choice.  The nearest stations are St. Paul, St. Cloud, Staples, Detroit Lakes, and Fargo; all but St. Paul are served in the wee hours of the morning; and only St. Paul and Fargo are staffed stations with checked baggage service.

    If I were PZ and wanted to ride the Empire Builder, since I’d already be used to making the drive to the MSP airport, I’d probably want to catch the train in St. Paul at a reasonable time…late night westbound or early to mid-morning eastbound.  I could get to Seattle; but that would require 2 nights and 1+ days each way, I’d want to book a bedroom, and that would probably cost over $5k round-trip.

    Also, now is not the time.  Post COVID, Amtrak’s long-distance trains run only three days per week; and on-board food service is crap.  Many rail advocates fear that it’ll stay that way.

  14. chrislawson says

    po8crg–

    Did I read you correctly that Tesla planned an air-cushion inside a vacuum tube? That sounds too silly even for Elon.

  15. mamba says

    To be fair, this was the first human trial inside, right?

    Maybe they were just going slower for sheer safety, and plan to increase the speeds to normal once they analyze the data to ensure it won’t break?

  16. says

    Electric cars only became popular in the US when they became competitive with gas cars for distance, speed and had reasonable charging times. Americans won’t change because something is better made or better for the environment. They’ll buy it when it makes their lives more convenient. The same goes with rail; no one is attempting nor has attempted to make rail more convenient than cars or planes.

    This Vox video on youtube demonstrates the US’s problem, the “hub” or “all roads lead to Rome” mentality and poor urban planning. Everything goes in and out of major centres, and never between suburbs. Taipei’s subway system radiates out of downtown (off the red and blue lines), but the bus system links the suburbs to each other with 15-20 minute trips by bus that would take 45 by MRT. The only thing that make trips long here is distance.

    People screamed in the Vox video comments “they’re using TORONTO to compare to US cities?” If a system as bad as Toronto’s is better than those in the US, I can’t imagine how unusable it is. New York’s Grand Chaos Station could be the poster child for how not to design a rail system.

  17. hackerguitar says

    In the 1960s, my parents used trains quite a bit both for commute and for other family travel. It was reasonably convenient and not expensive. By the time I was in my early teens, I was routinely using it for trips around the northeast.

    But years of underfunding, prioritization of freight rail over passenger rail, and highway funding destroyed it.

    I’ve looked at maps; into the 1940s, it was possible to travel to a remarkable number of places in the US using rail. That we as a society let it die without anyone really protesting reeks of shortsightedness.

  18. robro says

    ethicsgradient @ #4

    This is “Virgin Hyperloop” (though Branson seems to have little to do with it beyond providing the brand name), not Elon Musk.

    That’s true, although Shervin Pishevar is considered a founder. Musk’s work is part of The Boring Company’s efforts. The story is Pshevar and Musk discussed the hyperloop idea some years ago, so there is a relationship to Musk.

    No less a luminary than Robert Goddard dreamed up the hyperloop idea in 1910. It’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of technologies sound kind of nuts or useless to begin with, and many of them fail…or get stalled for decades. This is just a milestone in a long trek toward an operating system with a lot of maybes. But it could be a viable option for some transportation needs. It does promise to spew less carbos into the upper-atmosphere.

    On the other hand, hype is easy to come up with to sell investors on putting money into pipe dreams.

    And on the third hand, Virgin Hyperloop is planning to initiate this service between LA and Las Vegas. The Vegas gambling world is clamoring for rail service with LA, so there’s no shortage of motivation and money. Based on an article I read about Trump’s ties to Vegas gambling interest and the LA/LV rail conundrum (there are more conventional ideas), is the casino owners are already arguing over where the station would be located because the casino closest to the depot stands to make a lot more money.

  19. numerobis says

    PZ, do you realize how bizarre it is to be attacking Musk for a company he’s got nothing to do with other than they adopted a name he coined? They aren’t even building the thing that Musk proposed in his sci-fi short story disguised as a white paper.

  20. numerobis says

    robro: the idea of a train in a vacuum tube dates back way further than Goddard, to the late 18th/early 19th centuries. It doesn’t work very well for a variety of reasons, among them that you can’t actually achieve a vacuum thin enough to really benefit compared to just having rail in the open with enough space for the air to get out of the way.

  21. davidc1 says

    Trust that smarmy smug git branson to attach his brand to it Over here in GB his firm virgin trains has lost it’s franchise to run trains on the West Coast line .
    And talking of railways ,we have the arse bollocks shitstorm than is HS2 .Bastards are chopping down ancient woodlands just so people can arrive twenty minutes earlier .

  22. Sunday Afternoon says

    @#14: chrislawson,

    po8crg–
    Did I read you correctly that Tesla planned an air-cushion inside a vacuum tube? That sounds too silly even for Elon.

    This principle isn’t as fanciful as it might first appear on first blush. The mechanism is in widespread use in hard disk drives (HDDs) where the “sliders” are using aerodynamic principles to maintain a controlled clearance of just a few nanometres. Helium-filled HDDs are generally at lower than atmospheric pressure but the fuild pressure in the “air” bearing under the sliders is several atmospheres.

    Here’s a Seagate patent from the 1998 outlining some of the details: https://patents.google.com/patent/US6212042

    Hyperloop itself is a solution looking for a problem – I agree with everyone who says “just build a railway”.

  23. flex says

    @Intransitive, #18,

    Everything goes in and out of major centres, and never between suburbs.

    It didn’t use to be that way. Up through the 1940’s most large cities had street-cars and interurban rail to reach the suburbs.

    Here’s a map of Detroit’s street car system in 1941:
    https://detroitography.com/2013/10/12/detroit-streetcar-rail-map-1941/

    And my grandparent’s used to ride the interurban into Detroit in the 1930’s from 20+ miles away. Easier than finding a parking place they said.

  24. says

    The video includes a clip of an interview with Musk. If the source thinks he’s relevant to this hyperloop thingie, who am I to deny him?

  25. wzrd1 says

    I looked at the thing and my first thought was, “a tight tolerance tunnel/high speed train in a fault ridden high seismic activity zone? That’s one of the stupidest notions I’ve ever heard of!”. First proper earthquake shifts the rails or deforms the tunnel and you slam into the walls at a thousand kph.

  26. quasar says

    Greens: Or, and hear me out on this, we could use renewable energy sources to power the high-speed electric trains we already have?

    Libertarians: What a ridiculous concept! How would we ever pay for such a pie-in-the-sky proposal? Lefties have no idea how to manage the economy.

    (I’m just kidding, of course. Libertarians would never let a greenie finish a sentence before cutting them off)

  27. aziraphale says

    Musk did some silly-looking short hops before he got to the full first-stage recovery with Falcon 9, which he’s now doing routinely and no-one else has done even once.

  28. jack lecou says

    @28: It probably wouldn’t even take an earthquake. The cost assumptions needed to make hyperloop look like even a vaguely good idea mean you can’t afford to actually use laser straight tube or spend the time to properly grade and align pylons in the first place. So, yeah, slightest thing goes wrong and you scrape the walls at a thousand kph. And that’s only the beginning.

    The other assumption — necessary in order to get passenger capacity numbers that are even a credible fraction of a real train system — is that capsules are zipping through those tubes practically on top of each other. The headways are supposed to be literally a couple of seconds. Even with computer control, that’d make it physically impossible to decelerate quickly enough to avoid a serious problem with the capsule in front. Even if the brakes are magically good enough, you can’t stop too quickly or the passengers are goo.

    So, when you hit a bump, and derail and start bouncing off the walls at a thousand kph, well, more or less simultaneously, the next capsule slams into your backside. And then maybe a few more for good measure. Things go from catastrophe to serial catastrophe pretty quickly.

    The lucky survivors — should there be any — will then merely have a couple miles of airless tunnel to hike through to get to safety — because, again, if you actually put in complicated escape and emergency systems at reasonable intervals, the construction and operation costs would blow up and the whole scheme would, again, lose the false appearance of somehow being cheaper and better than a real train system.

    Let’s not even talk about all the other stuff real transportation systems have to actually deal with. Right-of-way acquisition, station siting, passenger boarding… Nope. Those are just little details that can’t possibly affect the budget or capacity. Surely a back of the napkin calculation based on the commodity cost of X miles of steel tube, maybe extrapolate a bit from gas pipeline per mile costs or something (which is totally the same thing, right?) should be close enough…

    I think it’s revealing that even Musk isn’t willing to put any real effort into the concept. For Musk, it was a throwaway idea he tossed out during one of the CA high speed rail funding debates. Up he popped with his napkin and declared that CA could build a futuristic vacuum tunnel system for a mere 10% or something of what the much more carefully costed rail system estimate was. Laughable, if so many people hadn’t apparently taken it seriously.

    I’m not sure even Musk really took it seriously. Charitably, it was just a bit of poorly thought out fake-futurist onanism for him, forgotten almost as soon as he clicked ‘send tweet’. Less charitably, it was a deliberate effort to spread some FUD about a project that might one day cut into car sales.

    In any case, Musk never went any further than the back of that napkin. He’s moved on to the equally poorly thought out urbanist nightmare of somehow putting an elevator on every street corner so Teslas can be lowered into narrow subterranean tunnels — which through some kind of unexplained magic will then allow them to ignore the principle of latent demand and speed through cities with zero congestion.

    So development of the hyperloop has devolved to a gaggle of even sketchier “innovators”. It amazes me that they’ve found any funding, or gotten even as far as they have. They and their investors are probably banking on being able to cash out by pawning a system off on some billionaire in Dubai or wherever with more money then sense.

    And I suppose they might not be wrong.

    Truly, the worst timeline.

  29. PaulBC says

    aziraphale@30 Musk combines showmanship with some genuine understanding of engineering (not sure how much, but if you believe his biography, he read a lot about rocket propulsion). He has been hit or miss as an entrepreneur, but has hit enough to be successful.

    That doesn’t mean you can predict a future success from a present failure. He also doesn’t act like a responsible adult (e.g. his $420 joke). Teslas are popular cars and a kind of status symbol, at least around here. Give him credit for designing an electric car people covet as a cool toy and not just an environmental statement or a ticket into the car pool lane.

    There are some real pretenders out there: Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos comes to mind and all the revolving door corporate leeches who show up to milk a company dry, collect their millions and move on to the next victim.

    So on balance. I dunno. I have a soft spot for Elon Musk. He’s fun at least, and one of the few famous “tech” entrepreneurs shoving matter around and just bits.

    That said, I think hyperloop is very silly and I would far prefer a bullet train like they have in civilized nations.

    Finally, am I the only Buckaroo Banzai fan who reads this blog? Though I was really thinking of something more like Dr. Lizardo’s first experiment.

  30. jack lecou says

    So on balance. I dunno. I have a soft spot for Elon Musk. He’s fun at least, and one of the few famous “tech” entrepreneurs shoving matter around and just bits.

    “Fun” probably depends on how close you are to him — sounds like it might not be the first word that some of his ex-wives or employees would use — but I get what you mean.

    The various CEOs of Exxon or GM or Northrop Grumman or whatever are probably complete assholes too — and no better at, say, labor rights, personal relationships, or environmentally sensible mass transit. Yet on balance, they’re responsible for a lot more evil than Musk has managed so far (global warming, urban sprawl, dropping bombs on foreigners, etc.) And I couldn’t even tell you their names without a google search, or whether they ever wanted to do anything with their lives other than cash quarterly bonus checks and twiddle their thumbs on their enormous yachts.

    At least Musk is a little more exciting, and seems to have some genuine feelings about, e.g., pushing humanity a little further out into space. That’s something.

    I do wish we didn’t have to pin our hopes for a future on the whims of eccentric asshole billionaires though.

  31. billroberts says

    “I hope the stock price of all of the companies associated with that clowning fraud Musk collapse.”

    So you want the most successful rocket builder and electric car builder in history to go out of business. I don’t think I’m the only one who considers that statement as foolish hyperbole.

  32. PaulBC says

    @37 Hyperbole aside, I will go on record that I would like Tesla to keep doing well and ideally bring electric cars down into a more affordable price range. I’m not thrilled with Musk’s labor practices, but in the grand scheme of things, I would like to see more electric cars and fewer gas guzzlers. I’m less keen on the rockets.

  33. vucodlak says

    @ billroberts, #36
    Pretty sure the most successful rocket builder in history died, like, decades ago. And was also a war criminal but, yeah, he’s definitely dead.

  34. says

    Libertarians and their sea cities, and billionaire efforts to get to mars seem similar. It looks like running away from responsability to fix the current mess. I want to make a smarter reference to scavengers but I’m tired.

  35. PaulBC says

    @39 Good point! And what sort of karma did we take on by lionizing an unrepentant Nazi? Eh, maybe not all that much compared to the karmic onus of wiping out the indigenous population or kidnapping millions from another content and treating them as chattel.

    I suppose I’d still rather be American than anything else because I was born that way, but what am I supposed to make of this?

  36. says

    The Hyperloop reminds me of the underground transit system used in the 1973 TV movie “Genesis II” written by Gene Roddenberry. I liked the movie and thought the subway was cool.

    While I was doing some research I came across a RAND Corp. paper from 1978 titled “Trans-Planetary Subway Systems”

    “Describes a subway concept called “Planetran” comprising electromagnetically supported and propelled cars traveling in underground evacuated tubes, able to cross the United States in one hour. It is designed to interface with local transit systems, and the tunnel complex also contains utility transmission and auxiliary freight-carrying systems. Tunnels represent a major problem area and most of the cost. They will be placed several hundred feet underground in solid rock formations. It will require advanced tunnel-boring machines, such as hypersonic projectile spallation, laser beam devices, and the “Subterrene” heated tungsten probe that melts through igneous rocks. Planetran is rated as a system high in conservation of energy. For every car being accelerated, there is one decelerating in an adjoining tube. The decelerating cars return energy to the system. The tubes have a reduced atmosphere, making drag losses much smaller than for aircraft. Coast-to-coast energy costs are expected to be less than $1.00 per passenger.”

    https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P6092.html

  37. PaulBC says

    @42

    The Hyperloop reminds me of the underground transit system used in the 1973 TV movie “Genesis II” written by Gene Roddenberry. I liked the movie and thought the subway was cool.

    Here’s hoping nobody tells Elon Musk about Logan’s Run (1976)

  38. PaulBC says

    Then there is the transportation system proposed by Donald Fagen.

    On that train all graphite and glitter
    Undersea by rail
    Ninety minutes from New York to Paris

    I will vote for any 2024 presidential candidate who promises to build this. With the demise of the Concorde, such a system is more urgent than ever.

  39. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    “We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young”. Oo.

    I don’t believe it, but I might vote for it anyway.

  40. PaulBC says

    @45 “There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone”

    Baby steps. I think we can swing this one at least.

Leave a Reply