Elon Musk’s hyperloop project seems well on its way from vision to reality.
For a little bit of context: Billionaire Elon Musk began designing the hyperloop out of frustration with the California High Speed Rail System, which is still under development but is promising to be one of the slowest, most expensive bullet trains in the world. The hyperloop, in contrast is supposed to travel at speeds up to 700 miles per hour, thanks to tubes that propel cars from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
A little over a month ago, Hyperloop One, one of the many startups focusing on hyperloop development, successfully completed a test showing the viability of its propulsion technology. In the months to come, we can expect to see more hyperloop news cropping up in the headlines.
Many, however, are still wondering whether the large-scale project is ultimately workable, cost-effective, and practical transportation investment.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, at least, seems to think that it is.
The Government’s “Responsibility” to Help with Musk’s Pet Project
Earlier this year, while speaking at Texas A&M University’s SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend, Foxx said the government had a “responsibility” to support innovation in hyperloop technology. The benefits of a taxpayer-subsidized hyperloop investment, however, are highly debatable. This is in part, because many of the potential costs and benefits of the system itself are uncertain.
For example, Musk initially estimated the total costs of the hyperloop’s Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor construction to run somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-7.5 billion. Compared to California’s estimated $68 billion price tag for a high-speed rail project along the same corridor, the hyperloop seems like a far more cost-effective high speed transportation solution.
However, critics of the Musk-inspired endeavor suggest the same issues posed to California’s high-speed rail project (such as the legal hurdles to land purchases) would apply to the hyperloop. As a result of such barriers, some estimate that the true cost would run closer to $100 billion.
Most analyses of the hyperloop, however, only account for the economic viability as a mode of passenger transportation. However, some startups, most notably Hyperloop Technologies, are actually focusing on prioritizing hyperloop development as a commercial cargo delivery service. A cargo-first model may be able to recoup higher investment costs in infrastructure, and emerging driverless truck convoys end up being far more cost-effective—after all, the highway system is already there for the using.
Why Government Money Is Better Spent on Autonomous Cars
So with all that in mind, should the federal government subsidize the hyperloop’s development? I would venture the answer, at this time, is no. Rather, government funds, especially for research and development purposes, are better directed at tried-and-true technologies closer to being actualized.
In particular, funding for autonomous vehicle deployment would be a far more cost-effective and practical use of taxpayer dollars. And given that the Department of Transportation has already committed $4 billion to autonomous vehicle research and deployment, subsidizing the hyperloop could ultimately be a redundant expenditure. This is especially true if the many promises of autonomous vehicles begin bearing fruit.
How the Government Can Help Fix Long-Distance Transportation
The hyperloop could very well emerge as a viable intra-city transportation investment, even without taxpayer support. However, for longer journeys (in excess of 900 miles), we should be less focused on capital- and infrastructure-heavy projects.
Actually, cross-country transportation models are in dire need of a revolution in innovative design. To that end, government can play an important role in opening the skies to innovation in one important and under examined area of aviation: supersonic flight.
If Congress were to nix the FAA’s ban on supersonic flight, as some have suggested, we may very well see a renaissance in airspace innovation. That could help complement the potential for regional hyperloop development and contribute to a new discussion on reforming America’s transportation network to better accommodate an era of rapid technological change.
The Best Scenario for a Hyperloop Roll-Out
So what’s the best case scenario for a hyperloop roll out? Even if the technological and economic wrinkles are ironed out, the system is still only ideal as a mode of medium-range, inter-city transportation, given the infrastructure costs at this time.
Maybe the transportation system of the future is an amalgamation of medium-range hyperloop transportation (for either passengers or cargo), with vertical take-off and landing drone transportation moving travelers from various hubs to larger airport terminals where supersonic jets carry them cross country.
We should value the hyperloop as an ongoing and visionary experiment in promoting new innovations in transit technology.
If that experimentation can catalyze a conversation about how we can best infuse much needed competition into continental-wide transportation modes, I’ll wager the hyperloop may end up living up to the hype after all.