Why We Might Never Get the Hyperloop

By Rob Enderle August 15, 2013

Elon Musk finally released the concept for his Hyperloop replacement for the high speed train. Only problem is that it really isn’t a train, it is a high speed fan driven large horizontal elevator.   This last is what effectively makes it faster, cheaper, and safer than a train could ever be, but unfortunately it is unlikely we’ll ever build it. 

Of course if you told someone you wanted to replace a high speed train by an electric fan powered horizontal elevator they’d likely lock you up.    This is because folks think of electric fans like the ones they grew up with and elevators as those square rooms that go up and down.   Of course a hundred years ago if you told folks you wanted to travel in a horseless carriage at 70 mph or on a plane at 450 MPH along with 500 other people they’d have done the same thing.    In fact, if you wanted to travel with a lot of folks by air you were probably better off suggesting a large balloon or a people firing cannon - neither of which would have worked out that well. 

The Hyperloop would be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly than the proposed high speed rail project in California - but there is still little chance it will be built. The simple answer why is that we don’t have the guts for it. Let me explain. 

Disney Monorail

Another visionary that was ahead of his time was Walt Disney. He proposed building two high speed monorail trains the first one from Anaheim (Disneyland) to the L.A. Airport and the second from Disney World to the Orlando Airport.   Neither were built.   I can’t speak to the Florida effort but I watched the L.A. effort closely.   This is before most of the large freeways that have subsequently been built existed and traffic was pretty bad (though I’d argue it is actually worse now).   The Monorail was estimated to cost $3M in the late 1950s when it was proposed.   The local government then spent the next decade doing feasibility studies, about $9M dollars of them, and these studies determined the Monorail wouldn’t be cost effective.   This is largely because they not only had to build it, but pay back the $9M on wasted studies.   

In hind sight, had they built the monorail and not done the studies we’d have a cool monorail in Southern California that would have been an additional tourist attraction and saved about $6M.    This showcases that if you expect the government to do the smart thing you’ll likely be very disappointed.  

The Experience

You can imagine what the experience of traveling on the Hyperloop would be.   You’d likely buy a ticket online and it would be for a certain departure time.   You’d arrive before that time and stand for a short time to board sitting in a seat with a restraint system closer to what you’d likely get on a roller coaster than a plane or train boarding through the open sides of the car.   Once in, the sides would close and the train would slowly move forward, like a roller coaster does, not the magnetic launch grid.   The doors behind the train would close and most of the air would be sucked out of the tube the train is now in.   Once that air is gone, the doors in front of the train would open. The operator (likely sitting in a control booth like ride) would tell you to hold on and the car you are in would rapidly accelerate to 600 MPH feeling a bit like a slow launch from an aircraft carrier.    At speed you’d likely only hear the swoosh of air from the outside. Screens in the cabin would show entertainment or a rendered view of the countryside you are passing through. It is doubtful you’d have windows because of the cost of maintaining a translucent tube.   Washing nearly 400 miles of window would get old really fast. 

Modern Train via ShutterStock

It is doubtful you’d have a bathroom in the car either or be allowed to move about for the short 30 minute ride.   Once at the other end you’d be notified to brace as the car rapidly slowed and went through the reverse process at the other end.   The walls of the car would open up and you’d step out of the car which would then move to the return track and pick up passengers for the trip back likely via a rotating tube.    Given trains could be spaced 10 to 15 minutes apart you could move a lot of people in a relatively short period of time and you’d likely be able to get from San Jose to L.A. quicker than from Orange County to L.A.   This could do some interesting things for housing prices in the Bay Area.  

Wrapping Up: Long Term

If successful, this mode of transportation could result in hubs in places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York fed by smaller hubs in other states. Linking the hubs could be done by some type of supersonic transportation and, since it was developed here first, we could export this technology to the world helping remove the dependency on oil and improving our own trade balance at the same time.  

But while our ancestors a hundred years ago would have made this happen in an instant - we don’t’ really seem to have that pioneering spirit anymore, we don’t have the guts to do amazing things anymore at scale, and I doubt we’ll ever build the planned high speed rail system let alone something as amazing as the Hyperloop.    It’s a shame really, because having ridden the maglev train in China, I know that the Hyperloop horizontal electric fan driven elevator would have been glorious.  

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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