Why the Hyperloop Will Never Happen

Bullet flying into barrel

What a ride on the Hyperloop might look like.

I presume you have all heard of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept by now. Well you can forget it. Ain’t gonna happen.

(I love making this kind of crystal-ball-gazing declaration because for me it’s a win-win outcome. Either I win because I predicted the future, or I win because I get to see this crazy contraption actually get built! This is in contrast, by the way, to people who predict the end of times on a particular date. Those can only be lose-lose propositions, which just goes to show that all doomsdayers are nuts, whether they’re right or wrong.)

I truly believe the Hyperloop will never come to be, probably ever. Having read the publicly available PDF document explaining it, it’s quite clear that there’s a gaping chasm between the theory of this suction-tube type of transportation, and the real-world implementation. There are too many unknowns that need to be discovered gradually and at great expense before the technology can ever be applied to the design of a reliable transportation mode.

Supporters draw a comparison to the adventuresome days of the dawn of flight, or the excitement of space exploration, to decry our present complacency and fear when it comes to adopting new technologies. While this observation about human nature is generally true, the comment fails to acknowledge that the aeronautic and astronautic ages matured over decades through the contributions of thousands of small developments and lessons learned by experience. They did not snap into place at the whim of a lone wealthy eccentric futurist.

By all accounts, the science behind Hyperloop appears to be sound. But Murphy’s Law trumps all those puny laws of science, to wit: “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. In the case of the Hyperloop, there are a handful of things that can go wrong at a glance.

The biggest question is perhaps the air cushion, whose flow could be choked with a sudden bump, or perhaps a sympathetic vibration in harmony with the resonance of the suspended capsule. Or there could be a disturbance external to the tube. For example oil pipelines have been known to fail, and it sure isn’t the oil that’s breaking them. The Hyperloop is nothing more than a human pipeline, ready to convert its 1200 km/h cargo into an instant goopy sludge puddle upon the failure of any of its components.

Man prepares to commute to work out of a cannon.

(Elmer Parolini, Jantoo.com)

Another ginormous fault with the concept is that nobody really needs to save one hour to get to San Francisco as much as they used to. With mobile electronics being what they are, there really isn’t any such thing as unproductive time anymore. This notion has clearly escaped Mr. Musk, dazzled by the elegance of the science as he is. For example, he seems not to have noticed that supersonic air travel was a failure and is now defunct. He waxes poetic about it in his PDF alongside the Hyperloop concept as if they were both viable travel options.

This isn’t to say that suction-tube transport can’t work. The concern is rather to point out that we don’t know enough to say if it will work reliably, efficiently, and with reasonable safety.

A more sensible project of this type to start off with would be a cargo transportation system. Perhaps something over water (or slightly beneath it), to avoid turns and land rights issues. Perhaps something to feed the US with all the cheap knickknacks coming from China, returning back to PRC with capsules chock full of US bonds?

According to the great Great Circle Mapper site, the straightest line between Harbin city in Northern China to Seattle Washington would cover 7700 km, most of which is over water near the coastline, crossing the Pacific gap up through the Bering Strait. Think about it, if a capsule full of plastic trinkets ever exploded in the middle of the Arctic, would it even make the news?

Map showing shortest route between Harbing and Seattle

Proposed Uberstrait route

Extrapolating from Elon’s guesstimapproximation of costs for the 350 mile Hyperloop, my Uberstrait™ proposal would only cost 82 billion dollars. But discounting for the cost of cheap Chinese labour, and the elimination of reclining leather seats, I think we can ballpark this thing at a mere 8.2 billion.

Wow, I’m actually loving this idea. Quick, to the PDF machine Batman, let’s make this Uberstrait™ thing happen!