Elon Musk's Hyperloop: More Silicon Valley Hype Than Practical Transit

In unveiling his new project, Hyperloop, Elon Musk ignores the human costs, and greatly understates the overall costs.

Concept art of Elon Musk's Hyperloop capsules

Concept art of Elon Musk's Hyperloop project, in particular the "capsules" used as vehicles. (Source:  Elon Musk/Tesla Motors)

(Disclosure:  Based on the current path as proposed by Elon Musk, the Hyperloop San Francisco to Los Angeles route would likely have its tube-based track go over the writer's house, leading to possible displacement.  Also, information subject to change pending an update from Musk)

Today, Elon Musk, America's version of Richard Branson, released an incredible and highly complicated proposal on a new high-speed transit system.  Called the Hyperloop, it attempts to make practical several theoretical technologies that would allow travelers to go from—in this instance—downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in approximately 40 minutes.  The Hyperloop essentially propels itself and runs in a vaccum tube.  Musk developed the Hyperloop as a response to the California High Speed Rail project, a bullet train between the same two cities that will run to nearly $70 billion, twice as much as a similar distance high speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai.  Musk makes the argument that his project will cost only a tenth of the California High Speed Rail at about $6-7.5 billion.

However, the math on the Hyperloop is not solid on cost.  Musk puts his costs on "permits and land," which would allow him to actually build the Hyperloop, at approximately $1 billion.  That seems an incredibly arbitrary number, and at no point in his proposal does Musk directly explain how he came to that number.  Most importantly, Musk fails to even mention, let alone account for, the cost of labor, which is considered a significant portion of the cost of building any public works project.  Already, the project's cost is higher than has been written.

To his credit, it is likely that costs will be low because he relies heavily on using the state's major highways as rights-of-way, the majority of which has enough space to place the Hyperloop tubes in the middle.  But when the highways reach the urban areas, the highways get next to each other each way, meaning the highways would have to be rebuilt, or the tubes would have to be built next to them, likely resulting in mass displacement.  Furthermore, Musk is dismissing the notorious bureaucracy of the state and local governments in California, many of whom will question whether the technology even works, since it has been completely untested.

However, Musk's proposal seems to avoid one of the bigger problems of dealing with NIMBYs in the Bay Area by having that end of his route go over the low-income neighborhoods of Oakland, rather than through the overly rich Silicon Valley.  This comes off as conceited.  A significant amount of the opposition and even cost of the California High Speed Rail project comes from squabbles in Silicon Valley, where they are doing everything in their power to render this bullet train invisible. 

Silicon Valley sees the train as a threat to their property values, which number in the millions due to an overheated housing market.  That, combined with the techie tendency of using money to subvert the rules and ignore the human aspect of creating these projects, makes for a very dangerous situation for those in living near the proposed route who will not be able to afford the displacement that would likely occur in building this project. 

Granted, Elon Musk has made Hyperloop into an open source project, in particular the technological aspects, which will allow the project to develop more effectively.  This might help address some of the stickier problems concerning cost, and makes it clear that he cares about making high-speed transit a realistic and affordable concept in America.  However, the human costs of Hyperloop are not something that Musk is taking seriously, in deference to Silicon Valley thinking, and if he builds the route as proposed, he does so at his own peril.