Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Squandering journalistic reputations on the Hyperloop, the Economist edition

I know I've been hammering at this point for more than long enough to wear out my welcome, but when a respected journalistic institution publishes bullshit, the damage takes multiple forms: the illegitimate is legitimized; bad reporting becomes more acceptable ("if ____ can do it, why can't we?"); and valuable reputations are eaten slowly away.

Which takes us to the Economist's initial reaction to the Hyperloop, which managed to get pretty much everything important wrong both in terms of frame and focus, despite coming out at about the story despite coming out after transportation wonks and  conscientious journalists had largely debunked the fundamental claims.

If you read those first, you can make a fun little game out of catching the screw-ups here.

The Hyperloop would carry passengers across California at more than 1,200kph—faster than a jet airliner—allowing them to zoom between San Francisco and Los Angeles [No, from Hayward to Sylmar. Getting the route wrong is a telling indicator of what's to come -- MP] in little over half an hour, compared with more than two-and-a-half hours for CHSR. It would be solar-powered, would take less land than a high-speed railway [and have a fraction of the capacity -- MP], and would be cheaper to boot. Mr Musk’s notional budget is around $6 billion, less than a tenth of what the high-speed train is supposed to cost. [Almost no independent experts agree with this. Their estimates are higher by one to two orders of magnitude. -- MP]

That, at least, is the theory. There are doubters, of course. Some worry that passengers will not like the prospect of hurtling through a steel tube, in a cramped capsule [Let's not forget, probably reeking of vomit -- MP], at almost the speed of sound. And there are inevitable questions about safety, though the pods would have wheels that could be deployed if needed, allowing them to limp to their destinations using batteries if the power failed. [just to be clear, if you experience cascading failure traveling through a near vacuum in a pressurized pod at over 1,200kph, having wheels won't be much of a factor -- MP] But, its breathtaking audacity aside, the thing does look feasible as an engineering project. [We need to talk about what feasibility means in an engineering context -- MP]

The tube would be held above ground, on pylons, reducing the amount of land it consumed [the route mainly goes through the Central Valley farming country where the the relatively low cost of land would be small compared with the expense of building hundreds of miles of high tech elevated structure -- MP], and would follow existing roads, which should simplify construction and make maintenance easier. The proposed route features only gentle curves. [That a relative term at these speeds, particularly when you factor in the vertical (anyone else here familiar with the Tejon Pass?) -- MP] And the air cushion surrounding each pod should ensure that the ride is smooth. Moreover, although unexpected engineering problems would be bound to crop up, Mr Musk’s experience—and that of his engineers—with space flight and car design would bode well for overcoming them. [note that none of that experience involves large infrastructure -- MP]


Building it alongside existing roads would certainly cheapen things as well as simplifying them, but critics who are poring over Mr Musk’s cost estimates, for everything from land permits to the construction itself, doubt the numbers stack up (though to be fair, both his electric cars and his space rockets have come in on budget).
I'm going to drop the brackets now because this one demands its own paragraph. The level of misrepresentation and understatement here is stunning. The critics aren't poring over the cost estimates; they're looking only at the big stuff, putting in optimistic assumptions and still coming to the conclusion that it doesn't "pencil out," and that Musk's numbers are between one and two orders of magnitude too low.  As for the parenthesis at the end, budget is inextricably intertwined with schedule and, more generally, with delivering what you promised when you promised it. As previously mentioned, Musk is notorious for over-promising. Furthermore, it's not entirely clear how much credit you get for coming in on budget when you've never made a profit despite raking in billions in subsidies.


  1. Mark:

    The Economist also fell for that recent "air rage" study, which was really disappointing because the Economist seemed like one media outlet that _wouldn't_ have a reflexive sympathy for the inequality-in-the-sky storyline.

    One subtle thing about your criticism is that the Economist article is not a puff piece---or, at least, I don't think the author would think of it that way. The article has lots of qualifiers. Your argument is that the qualifiers aren't enough. That could be. It's an interesting point. I'm so used to seeing junk journalism that exhibits no skepticism at all (as in most of the reporting of the air rage and power pose stories) that I'm not used to criticisms of news reports for being skeptical, but not skeptical enough.

    1. 1. No, it's not a puff piece (that would be Forbes -- http://www.forbes.com/sites/hannahelliott/2012/03/26/at-home-with-elon-musk-the-soon-to-be-bachelor-billionaire/#7178b16d4ead) , but it is a piece with an agenda, one that is familiar both to readers of the Economist and to those who've been following the coverage of the hyperloop: if the government would just get out of the way, our lives would be full of wonderful things. There are cases where this is true, where deregulation and privatization can do great things, but recently it has been used primarily as an excuse to explain away the under-performance of over-hyped technologies and business models. Musk himself has fallen back on this one frequently, despite the fact that all of his post-PayPal businesses rely on billions of government contracts and subsidies.

    2. 2. The qualifiers are also problematic. This is not just an issue with the Economist. Respectable establishment publication have gotten really bad about treating the mere presence of qualifiers and dissenting opinions as sufficient, even if they aren't informative. We saw this a lot with Mars One, where “overwhelming consensus of aerospace experts dismiss” became “some critics doubt.”

      It's useful to step back and think of this in terms of knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. There are a lot of aspects of building an intercity vactrain that are so far outside of our range of experience that any cost estimate has to be highly speculative -- independent experts tend to think Musk is being highly optimistic in these parts of his proposal but they can't say conclusively that he's wrong – but when it comes to things like putting large structures up on pylons or down in tunnels, we have a lot of relevant experience.

      Remember this one?

      [Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley.] said that while some of the infrastructure is novel, the elevated guideway was not unlike existing structures such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit's aerial tracks. For the Hyperloop's tracks, that alone would cost in the tens of billions. As for the pipeline for the cars, he said, oil pipelines are $5 million to $6 million per mile, and they are seven times narrower than the Hyperloop's would need to be. In addition, the Hyperloop track could not change direction abruptly the way an oil pipeline could.

      "It really has to be built to much higher standards than anybody has ever built a pipeline to," Anderson said.

  2. Wow---twins and triplets and divorce. That's tough! Hard to imagine having time to design a hyperloop with all those kids running around...

    1. He probably has help. I understand he's quite well off.