Thursday, February 28, 2019

More on that terrible New York Times hyperloop articles -- the "skeptics"

Picking up where we left off on the painfully credulous New York Times Hyperloop story, here are a few passages I want to single out.

“From the point of view of physics, hyperloop is doable,” said Garrett Reisman, professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and a former astronaut on the International Space Station.

The experience will be no different from riding in an airplane with the shades drawn, and technical issues around maintaining the vacuum within the tube will be solved, he believes.

Instead, hyperloop projects will face more mundane challenges.

“Getting innovative things through the regulatory and certification environments is very difficult,” Mr. Reisman said. “This could face an uphill battle in the U.S.”

First off, the does-not-violate-the-laws-of-physics standard is an incredibly low bar for an engineering proposal, particularly one that has been floating around in more or less its current form for about a century, but nonetheless it is frequently invoked in these articles. 

The question is cost (both in terms of construction and maintenance), followed by speed and reliability.  The problem Reisman cites is nontrivial (we’re talking millions of cubic feet of near vacuum), but it’s minor compared to the issue of stability, which is itself minor compared to that of manufacturing and assembling a massive structure with this level of precision.   

Worrying about regulation at this point in the process is like debating what color you’ll paint your mansion when you win the lottery.

But Reisman is a model of critical thinking next to the articles other “skeptic.”

Rick Geddes, professor in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, sees a different challenge. “The biggest problems for hyperloop will be securing rights of way and permitting,” he said.

Still, Professor Geddes believes that hyperloop systems will become a reality, as the time is ripe.

“There’s a sense that things are stale; we’re just adding to existing modes of transport,” he said. “Time is more and more a valuable commodity. The transportation industry is ready for a new way of thinking.”
This perhaps the most unintentionally informative passage in the entire piece. The hyperloop is an example of a major genre of 21st Century tech writing, stories about some long promised technology that is suddenly just around the corner. Fusion reactors, Martian colonies, the end of aging, yes, even flying cars.

When you scrape away the hype from these announcements, you never find the kind of transformative advances that would be needed to make these things viable. Instead you get a desire to believe and a vague sense that “the time is ripe.” It’s like the gambler’s fallacy for futurists. we’ve waited so long. Surely we’re due


  1. Wow. Cornell's really been taking a reputational hit during the past several years.

    1. As long as the food lab and the policy analysis people don't get together