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.

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