About Musk's Hyperloop? Hiltzik's not buying it

Artist's rendering of the Hyperloop tube

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has written a lot about technology and the vetting process that separates real inventions from mere enthusiasm. He wrote a 1999 book, "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age," about successful Silicon Valley creators. As for Elon Musk's promise that an unproven transport system will speed people between LA and San Francisco for very little money, Hiltzik can't help but notice there is little of substance behind the "scads of fawning publicity" that have elevated Musk and his dream into the conversation.

Hiltzik begins his column with a brief lesson on the typical life cycle of visionary technology. First comes the "gee-whiz" stage, then the hard work of research and development, then the crash when the dream meets cold, hard reality. "Let's hope there aren't any passengers aboard when Elon Musk's Hyperloop hits stage three," Hiltzik says.

More from the column:

There's no evidence that it would be cheaper than the high-speed rail project, and reason to believe it would cost more; it certainly couldn't be built for the $6-billion price tag Musk claims. As for the real issues of politics and technology that Musk waves away, in the real world they don't go away quietly.

The Hyperloop has two things going for it: the notion of going between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a half-hour in capsules propelled on cushions of air, which sounds awfully snazzy; and the fact that Elon Musk proposed it. But it's not clear that the first is an especially pressing need, except for people like Elon Musk. As for Musk himself, he's a serial entrepreneur with an impressive record that includes PayPal, the electric-car company Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, a space launch company.

But whether his skill at synthesizing existing technologies into new businesses in those fields translates into solving a problem of public infrastructure on this scale is unproven. One hint that he may be playing outside his comfort zone comes from his description of the Hyperloop as a "cross between Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table."

Concorde? The Anglo-French supersonic jet took some 20 years to get off the drawing boards. It came in at 15 times its original cost estimates, couldn't carry enough passengers to operate profitably and was mothballed after a catastrophic crash in 2000 underscored its myriad technological flaws. If that's the model for the Hyperloop, I'll stay home, thanks.

Musk, he writes, "is a master of exploiting the public's limited attention span...The Hyperloop might solve a problem for the limited percentage of people who need to go between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a half-hour, but it leaves everybody else behind."

That last point is echoed by C. William Ibbs, a UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering: "Give me $68 billion and I can solve a lot of problems in California that are more pressing — secondary and primary education, prison overcrowding, pollution. I'm not sure that giving highly paid professionals a transportation subsidy is the best use."

More by Kevin Roderick:
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