Monday, May 23, 2016

Where were we? Oh, yeah, the Hyperloop

Before we get further into the story, there is an important aspect that has bizarrely gone unmentioned in most of the coverage of this.

The Hyperloop is a conceptual high-speed transportation system originally put forward by Elon Musk, incorporating reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.

The outline of the original Hyperloop concept was made public by the release of a preliminary design document in August 2013, which included a notional route running from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area, paralleling the Interstate 5 corridor for most of its length. Preliminary analysis indicated that such a route might obtain an expected journey time of 35 minutes, meaning that passengers would traverse the 350-mile (560 km) route at an average speed of around 600 mph (970 km/h), with a top speed of 760 mph (1,200 km/h). Preliminary cost estimates for the LA–SF notional route were included in the white paper—US$6 billion for a passenger-only version, and US$7.5 billion for a somewhat larger-diameter version transporting passengers and vehicles —although transportation analysts doubted that the system could be constructed on that budget.

To the extent that there is an idea in the proposal, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new one. Pretty much everyone in relevant fields of engineering has at least tossed these concepts around in the back of their heads. Many, if not most, have even sketched out something similar on the back of a notebook during a boring class.

We haven't seen a real life version of one of these trains, not because there's necessarily anything wrong with the basic concepts, but because actually making something like this would require either a tremendous financial commitment or a major advance that dramatically reduces the cost of construction. None of the recent proposals have seriously addressed these problems, let alone solved them; they have simply waved them away.

Joseph Brownstein had an excellent summary of some of the issues:

“There’s no way the economics on that would ever work out,” said Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

At projected capacity levels, the so-called Hyperloop would transport 840 people each hour, each paying $20. With capital, labor and maintenance costs factored in, Sperling said, “Those numbers, even in the most outlandish visionary way, do not make any sense at all. The whole technology is unproven. I know he’s a brilliant guy, but it just doesn’t pencil out.”


Bonnie Lowenthal, chair of the California State Assembly's Transportation Committee told the Wall Street Journal, "Big infrastructure projects in California are very difficult. We have very complicated funding, we have environmental protections, seismic faults and land acquisition – but that's just the shortlist.”

Beyond land-purchase issues, any realistic estimate of the costs would say Musk and his team are underestimating them "by at least a factor of 10 to 20," said Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

He said the more realistic price for a one-way ticket would reach about $1,000, based on his own projections of construction costs and Musk's proposed capacity of 840 riders per hour.

"You're talking $100 billion to build what they’re proposing,” Anderson said.

Anderson 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.

Ultimately, it comes down to the Hyperloop not being able to transport enough people, Anderson said.

"If it’s going to cost $100 billion, you need to make it very high capacity to make it a worthwhile investment and it’s not," he said, explaining that in order to get a 6 percent return, tickets for the Hyperloop built at his projected costs and Musk's proposed capacity would have to be $1,000 each -- a price not enough people would be willing to pay to sustain it.

Like the woman said, that's the shortlist.

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