Monday, August 26, 2013

Elon's Hyperloop

As a diversion from my regular (rare) blogging, here are some thoughts after reading through Elon Musk's Hyperloop Proposal:

First of all, as an aficionado of low-cost travel and as someone who has frequently dealt with I-5 traffic, I can authoritatively state that a new type of high-speed transportation that eliminates or reduces driving at low cost is fantastic and an idea whose time has come.

The $68 billion California High-Speed Rail Authority has completely ignored the proposal, which is a shame.  Embracing, or at least exploring, a new lower-cost technology would greatly improve the reputation of an agency currently viewed as a huge boondoggle.  I well know the pain of investing a lot of time in something, only to be one-upped by some know-it-all, but the CHSRA needs to swallow its pride and give the Hyperloop some real consideration.  No ego is worth 68 billion dollars.

My family makes the trip from Sacramento to LA at least twice a year, and we would go a lot more often if the trip took less time to drive (low cost), or if it was less expensive to fly (low travel time).  The Hyperloop seems to address that space.  The HSRA doesn't appear to care about it much.

Given that, here are some thoughts. I assume that the basic technology that enables the hyperloop to propel across the San Joaquin Valley are sound and leave the questioning of that to other more qualified skeptics.


These are the biggest challenges that come to mind. 
  • The proposal pretty much punts on what a non-physicist such as myself envisions as the greatest technical challenge of the project, which is to push upward through the steep Grapevine section of I-5 southbound between the Grapevine travel center and the summit near Castaic.  The proposal does note that the southbound speed is reduced to 300 mph, about half the travel speed of the remaining journey, but I suspect that this segment of approximately 40 miles in length will require a much greater amount of energy and much slower travel than suggested in the proposal.
  • Another tough problem is the last 5 miles between Oakland and San Francisco, which requires construction or retrofitting of the Bay Bridge.  Perhaps the old Bay Bridge section between Oakland and Treasure Island, which is to be retired shortly, could be retrofitted for use by the Hyperloop.  However, the segment from Treasure Island (which already has problems with power supply) to San Francisco would have to overlay the existing Bay Bridge, which was built without consideration of the Hyperloop.  Alternatively, the Hyperloop would need its own dedicated bridge or submarine tunnel.
  • Others have commented that the lack of restrooms would likely cause passengers not to use the Hyperloop.
  • What about safety?


After reflection, I don't think any of these challenges are deal breakers.  Here are some suggested workarounds:
  • So what if the capsule travels up the Grapevine at 100 or even 50 MPH.  I suspect the Hyperloop, if priced on the order of what Elon Musk suggests (average cost of $20 per person one way, plus cost of capital) will be plenty subscribed even if it takes two or three hours to travel from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.  This amount of time is still competitive with air travel, given the time required getting to and through airports. 
  • The entire Bay Area design would probably be much more practical if it did not go all the way to San Francisco.  The way I see it, it doesn't have to.  Why not set the Northern terminal instead in Dublin or Livermore, where it can connect to BART while avoiding complicated and costly construction in the Bay Area and across the Bay itself.  There is plenty of space there for a large Hyperloop terminal with parking, rental cars, luggage services, etc. for those who want to drive or ride BART to the terminal.  Even if the Hyperloop were to terminate in San Francisco, most people would be transitioning to it on public transportation anyway, since parking in San Francisco is scarce.
  • It would make sense for the Hyperloop to have more park-and-ride stations across the San Joaquin Valley, such as at Stockton, Mendota, Buttonwillow, and Santa Clarita, for travelers transiting to Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Palmdale/Lancaster/Las Vegas (until extensions are built), respectively
  • The Hyperloop can operate without restrooms.  Cars don't have restrooms, and yet people drive them on interstates with long stretches between rest stops.  The Hyperloop would need to have more stops, and someone in a capsule would need to be able to signal to stop if needed.  Alternatively, the Hyperloop could offer "local" capsules which stop, allowing anxiety-prone passengers to get off, and "express" capsules which could bypass intermediate stations and would stop only in the event of emergency.  As a last resort, people can do what this person allegedly did.
  • Luggage could travel in a separate capsule from humans, in cargo capsules (along with, say, FedEx packages, etc.)  Folks could drop off their luggage at the terminal before they board, and it could travel ahead of time while passengers are waiting to board their own capsules.
  • If we can safely land a rover on Mars, we should be able to safely insulate cars from colliding with one another, by means of some combination of parachutes, spring-loaded bumpers, air bags, seat belts, etc.

Other Thoughts

Again, even a 3 hour trip from the Bay Area to LA would be a huge improvement.  It still beats the time it takes to deal with waiting for flights and luggage.  In fact, if folks could travel 400 miles in less than an hour, the entire landscape along the train route would be altered, with suburbs sprouting up across the San Joaquin Valley whose residents commute daily to Los Angeles and San Francisco.  It's not clear that this would be beneficial to California. 

Pricing would have to be dynamic to get the most efficient use of the system.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend would likely be expensive due to high demand; whereas traveling at 1:00 a.m. on a Tuesday should be priced at cost.  Even if prices are high during peak periods, it would draw significant traffic away from I-5, thereby alleviating congestion.

In Conclusion

There are a lot of technological, regulatory, and financial hurdles before the Hyperloop is any kind of a reality.  That said, I believe that most of the problems that the bloggerati have suggested aren't really technical, and are very much surmountable.  I for one am bullish and hope that something comes of it in my lifetime.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Start Spreading the News: Part 2 - Connecticut to New York

Part 1:  Heading East
Part 2:  This page

With a 3-hour jetlag effect, we didn't get to bed until well after midnight.  And that night happened to be the switch to daylight savings time, so we didn't get out of the hotel until around 10:30.

We spent a few terrific hours with some family we hadn't seen in years, and then hit the road.  We made the mistake of relying on our GPS and not the map we had bought the day before but left somewhere in the luggage.  Anyways, I think it took us at least an extra half hour more to get to New York City than it needed to.  

Once in New York, we made good time on the Henry Hudson Parkway until we got to the light at around 57th (?) street, where we stopped and spent about a half hour trying to get through a traffic light.  We drove on streets to get from there to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Soho, and it took at least another half hour.  But we found the hotel and it is pretty unassuming from the street.  Knowing that we would be returning a car soon,  we had kept our eyes open for a gas station but never found one.   I dropped off the wife and kids, we had a porter handle the luggage, and I went to return the car.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Start Spreading the News: Part 1 - Heading East

Part 1:  This Page
Part 2:  Connecticut to New York

Our flight was Saturday morning from San Francisco, 90 miles from our house, to Newark.  We looked into a "park and stay" deal at several of the SFO airport hotels, since I was out of points.  It would have cost about $170 for the week.  Not terrible but it's above the $50 threshold that warrants further research.

We had asked my aunt who lives in the Bay Area if we could stay there and if she could drive us to the airport, and she happily obliged. 

Left Friday evening after I got home from work to head out to the Bay.  Stopped at our favorite sushi restaurant for dinner, got to our aunt's house, and everything went as planned.  She even was willing to drop us off and pick us up, saving about $65 in parking fees and an hour on each side of the trip.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Start Spreading the News: Introduction

After a very busy few months at work, interspersed with a maniacal frenzy of frequent flier booking, it was at long last my daughter's school's spring break, which means we were officially on vacation.

The Goal

This trip is the next in our quest to have as much fun as we can on a relatively modest budget, within the limits of my family's patience.  In this case, we are spending one night in Connecticut, four nights in New York City, and two nights in Boston.

Most if not all people I know who consider themselves frugal enjoy one or more particular splurge.  We are no exception.  In fact, frugal might be the wrong word entirely.  More to the point, we spend money on things that are important to us, and in particular, that we can't get for free or nearly so.  Otherwise, if it can be scrounged, it will be scrounged, and unapologetically so.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Get your 100,000 AA miles before it's too late

Update:  It's too late.  But there are plenty of other good deals to be had.

With the new AA - US Airways merger officially announced today, I'm handicapping the over/under of the termination of the legendary "two browser trick," which still gets you 100,000 miles on AA per person, to occur within about a month.  (50,000 miles for each of two cards)  But it could be anytime, maybe tomorrow, maybe it already happened.  To be honest, I'm surprised it didn't happen as soon as the loophole was exploited about three years ago.  In any case, it's worth trying even if you only get one of the 50k cards.

The new CEO will be very focused on cost cutting and this is surely one of the first loopholes to be closed.  So if you are considering taking the deal that has enabled me and countless other scavengers to rack up way more frequent flier miles than we ever thought possible, do it now.

I believe that the 2 cards applied for simultaneously will show up on your credit score as a single credit hit, about a 3-point decrease in the score, although I am not certain of this.  Conventional wisdom is that you need a credit score of at least 700 to qualify and my personal experience is that you can't have applied for a lot of other credit cards recently.

You and a spouse have separate credit scores and can each apply separately, and each get 100,000 points this way.  If you give

Daraius explains the procedure eloquently and answers many questions about it.  Be sure to follow the directions very carefully, or you might not get both cards.  Click Here for instructions on!

Here is what you could do with 100,000 miles on AA:

  • Four 1-way tickets to/from Japan offpeak
  • Five 1-way tickets to/from Europe offpeak
  • Five 1-way tickets to/from South America offpeak
Or half as many if you fly first or business class, or slightly fewer trips if you fly in the summer.  

And if you are very resourceful and patient and live in certain places, you could bundle each of the above trips with another domestic one-way trip, for only the cost of the TSA fee ($2.50 per segment).  Or you could hire a professional to help you.

Of course, it is possible (albeit unlikely, given the number of sharps floating around) that AA somehow makes money off the 2-browser trick, in which case expect to see it there until kingdom come.

Note: this may not be a good idea for you if you are in the middle of applying for a mortgage (or if you plan to apply for one soon and your credit score is marginal) and/or if you have a difficult time paying off your credit card balance every month.

Good luck and enjoy the miles.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Extreme Booking: A True Story of Trip Planning with Frequent Flier Points - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3: Below

I'm not going to recap the story up to this point, since it's way too complicated to summarize in a few sentences.  Instead, I encourage you to read parts 1 and 2 sequentially before you read this.

Plan C

By the last week of December 2012, the long-awaited miles from the new credit card bonus had posted to my AA account, but the seats to Japan that we wanted for the spring were no longer available.  However, at this later date, I realized we could book for the following Thanksgiving, using AA points on Alaska Airlines, but not yet on American.  Alaska seems to be available about 330 days ahead, in accordance with AA rules, but AA's own seats seem to show up in the booking engine about a week later.  I called my sister, on vacation in Hawaii.  We invited ourselves to her house in Phoenix for Thanksgiving 2013, and decided on the following:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Extreme Booking: A True Story of Trip Planning with Frequent Flier Points - Part 2

Part 1
Part 2: Below
Part 3

Previously on Bottom-Feeding the High Life:

Wife and kids have ticketed reservations from SMF to TUS using BA points (9,000 points + $9 each).  They also have unticketed TUS to San Jose, and SFO to Tokyo HND, and HND to SFO, and SFO to New York. TUS-SFO-HND was 25,000 miles + $45 per person; HND-SFO-JFK was another 25,000 miles + $32 per person, or thereabouts.

I had the same reservations (except for the SMF to TUS and TUS to SFO parts). 
Some of the reservations were to expire Friday, but I was still waiting for my new AA Citicard bonus points that I needed to execute the transaction.  I had enough charges on my billing statement, which closed on Tuesday, and I needed the bonus points to show up within 3 days of the statement closing.  The reservation home was to expire at midnight Friday, Japan Standard Time.

We already knew that.  So what happened?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Extreme Booking: A True Story of Trip Planning with Frequent Flier Points - Part 1

Frequent flier points are generally not easy to use, given that the "saver" seats you can use to fly with mileage points are typically extremely scarce on most flights.  You can easily find "anytime" seats which require twice as many points, but this is a big waste of points and it is seldom better than paying cash, so I don't really count that as using miles.  For someone with a day job, such as myself, and anyone with kids who attend school on a specified schedule, it is that much more complicated, as it is when a family of four wants to travel together on an impacted routing.  And the reality is, pretty much all flights, or at least some flights on just about any routing, are impacted.

This is the very true story of the planning of such a routing.