3 Thoughts on Hyperloop
At this point, most people have heard about Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s latest revolution-du-jour. This alternative to high-speed rail is undoubtedly an exciting concept, but it leads us to ask – what happens now?
Elon shared his design in an effort to spur dialogue, and open the door to critical analysis. We sat down with CTR faculty member (and former CTR Director), Dr. Randy Machemehl, to discuss Hyperloop and give us his thoughts on the project.
1. Exciting, but unproven technology
There’s no question that the technology is interesting, but he is proposing a lot of unproven technology. It’s definitely going to require a substantial investment in R&D (research and development). I think his implementation cost estimates are probably very, very low. Not only does the plan not account for the necessary R&D, but it is impossible to confidently predict implementation costs without first proving the technology first. There are always going to be unforeseen issues and challenges – no question. That’s what makes projects like this inherently risky, and you just aren’t going to fully understand the entire scope until you do your R&D.
A good example is the Apollo space program. This was a tremendously bold project done in a relatively short period of time, but it required HUGE amounts of resources. And those vehicles were designed to be used one time. With Hyperloop, the parts need to be built for longevity to be used repeatedly over a period of time.
2. No risk, no reward
I think the Hyperloop conversation is very appropriate. We need more money in transportation research programs. In the past 30 years, we have started looking for more short-term solutions than we used to. We’ve lost that long-term focus, and the only way we’re going to start doing that is by taking more risks. If we don’t we’re never going to make that quantum leap forward.
A fraction of research needs to be dedicated to taking risks. When we are taking these kinds of big risks, we usually end up making unintended discoveries and creating spinoffs. Look at Apple. When Steve Jobs left Apple in the 1980’s, they started developing the Newton (an early personal digital assistant capable of handwriting recognition). After he came back, it was one of the first programs he shut down. But some of the technology that came out of that R&D process led to the iPhone, so that was obviously a valuable investment. Just because you don’t succeed in developing the technology you initially set out to find, it doesn’t mean you aren’t going to come away with something extremely valuable.
3. Who picks up the tab?
The big question is always going to be about funding. Who is going to pay for this? I think public money is going to have to get things started. That’s not to say there couldn’t be some kind of public/private partnerships, but the leadership is going to have to come from the public sector.