Does the Hyperloop even make sense for California?

August 12, 2013
August 12, 2013

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Elon Musk has fleshed out the details on his new super-fast pnuematic capsule transit proposal, and it’s probably a good idea he’s too busy with his electric car and spaceflight endeavors to build it: It will cost more than he thinks without doing enough to solve the problem.

The Hyperloop, per Musk’s design, will cost about a tenth of the bloated $68 billion California high-speed rail project that’s being proposed between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which inspired him to search for a cheaper, more efficient model.

Musk thinks he can build his system for $6-10 billion, depending on whether it can carry cars or not. Most of the money is spent on creating the raised vacuum tubes that allow the capsules to move with little friction, and most of the savings over the high-speed rail come not from the transport technology but because running the Hyperloop next to the I-5 highway will allow it to avoid complicated land purchases and construction, while the raised pylons are less disruptive than railways to traffic. Experts say these forecasts are optimistic.

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People who propose big infrastructure projects “always think they are different,” William Ibbs, a civil engineering expert at Berkeley, says. Ibbs also fears the on-going high-speed rail project will be too costly given its ultimate benefits, as new technology decreases the need to commute and airlines provide competitive service. In the case of Musk’s plan, he notes that even if no land needs to be purchased at all—unlikely—permits for noise, light and vibration will still require plenty of time, and those delays are often the source of rising costs.

Then there are Musk’s assumptions about ridership: He predicts 7.4 million people will ride yearly, allowing him to forecast one-way ticket costs at $20 plus operating costs if the capital investments are amortized over 20 years. But for that to work out, the system will need to average 30 full 28-person trips an hour, every hour of every day, with capsules leaving every thirty seconds during peak hours. Think that will happen in combination with airline-style security measures? Given fewer passengers and higher capital expenses, fares will be higher, too.

While the estimates at California’s High Speed Rail agency are considered inflated, their lowest estimate for annual number of passengers once the LA to San Francisco line is up and running in 2030 is 16.1 million; the highest is 26.8 million.  In the unlikely outcome  that the Hyperloop replaces the high-speed rail project—Musk thinks it could be built in a decade—it’s not clear that it would do enough to meet regional transit needs. And if the Hyperloop does go up alongside the high-speed rail, the competition will presumably increase the need to subsidize the more-expensive railway (Musk’s original objection) while also putting pressure on the Hyperloop’s own finances.

Still, kudos to Musk for spending the time (and that of various experts at his companies) essentially doing a free study of a creative idea to solve a policy problem and releasing it to the public for critique. Other tech billionaires have worse hobbies.

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