by Misha Lepetic

“The whole arrangement is as cozy and comfortable as the
front basement dining room of a first-class city residence.”
~ Scientific American, 1870

Underground_pneumatic_1870Is there anything that is not deserving of disruption by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? Last week the world came to understand that in addition to pretty much everything else, high-speed rail is heading for a makeover. The irrepressible Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, unveiled, in a somewhat anticlimactic press conference, what is essentially a giant pneumatic tube for people. Also known as the Hyperloop, it intends to shoot people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in something like 35 minutes, at a top speed of nearly 800 miles per hour. Remarkably, Musk declared that he has no intention to build the thing; as John Oliver said on the Daily Show, “That's like saying ‘Hey, you know what we should do? Find a vaccine for cancer…Someone get on that! I'm just the ideas man.'” I suppose this is the flipside of what Musk generously termed the “open source” nature of the project. However, the proposal is worth examining both for its implicit attitudes towards what is being designed, and what the real purpose of the Hyperloop might be.

Once Musk had finally opened the kimono, the critics naturally pounced. It's easy to dish on a multi-billion-dollar design proposal that is all of 57 pages, and contains such breezy gems as: “short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment. This is where things get tricky” (p3). Tricky, indeed.

But it's not so much the technology, or Musk's indifference to building it, that is at issue here. Most of this has been developed and is fairly uncontroversial. In fact, the idea of using some combination of air or vacuum to propel people through tubes was successfully prototyped back in the 1870s. Of course, the issue of scale will certainly produce its own set of challenges, but this will arrive in due time. Nor is the cost “where things get tricky,” either: even though critics have called out the $6bn price tag as laughably low, since when has an infrastructure project ever been priced realistically?

What is more interesting to me is the way people themselves are considered in the design proposal.

You would think that the experience of traveling this way would be a key consideration. And there are plenty of assumptions, some stated and some not, that provide us with a glimpse of how the designers view their human charges. Here is the proposal's description of passenger accommodations:

The interior of the capsule is specifically designed with passenger safety and comfort in mind. The seats conform well to the body to maintain comfort during the high speed accelerations experienced during travel. Beautiful landscape [sic] will be displayed in the cabin and each passenger will have access their [sic] own personal entertainment system. (p15)

The obvious haste with which this copy was put together isn't very encouraging. But the message is clear: strap in and stay still. There are no bathrooms, since anyone should be able to hold it in for 35 minutes, right? Besides, no one really has any business getting up and walking around while they are traveling at 790 mph.


Not that you could. ‘Capsule' and ‘pod' are excellent descriptors for this vehicle, since the width of its interior is projected to be about 4'6″ and its height just a touch over 6' (p15). There is enough room for two seats; the idea of an aisle has been summarily dismissed. Thus it is literally impossible to leave your seat during the entire journey. So what happens when things go wrong? Consider the Hyperloop's take on passenger emergencies:

Therefore in case of emergency, it is likely that the best course of action would be for the capsule to communicate the situation to the station operator and for the capsule to finish the journey in a few minutes where emergency services would be waiting to assist. (p53)

There are a few drawbacks here. Most extremely, anyone going through a heart attack, seizure or something similar doesn't have a very good chance of being alive by the time the capsule pulls into its destination. Even though Musk's designers explicitly mention the presence of first aid kits on board, they don't really say where they are. I am hoping there is one underneath every seat. But more importantly, the construction of the capsule implies that, if you can't help yourself, the only person who stands a chance of helping you is in the adjacent seat. If you're lucky, she or he will be a doctor. Even the very idea of a first aid kit is a bit silly – how many people actually know what's inside one? It's much better to have someone around who actually is trained in first aid, and knows how to use one.

I'm harping on this seemingly minor detail because it is indicative of the larger stance taken in the proposal. Generally, if you give a bunch of engineers a problem, the solution you'll get will be predicated on the assumptions of engineering. The design will seek to reconcile whatever constraints are involved – safety, efficiency, speed, cost, etc. But these reductive frameworks, while powerful, tend to squeeze human preference and behavior to the point that people become another highly engineered aspect of the system.

2046The hope that people will sit still and behave themselves always turns out, in the long run, to be overly optimistic. And yet, in the Hyperloop concept, this assumption is stretched to its most extreme end. Put another way, it is the very efficiency of the design that pretends to compensate for the mindblowing variety of things that can go wrong once you introduce the human element into any system. The idea is that this thing moves so fast, there's virtually no time in which bad things can happen. This is true until the inconvenient day a capsule rolls into the station with a still-warm body on board. (It would almost make more sense for the Hyperloop to introduce some sort of short-term anesthesia to ensure maximum cooperation from travelers – something I have been hoping the airlines would have sorted out by now.)


So much for certain aspects of the Hyperloop's design principles. Where does it fit within the larger landscape of transportation in California? It's not like entrepreneurs like Musk play spin-the-bottle to figure out what they will next spend their time. And in fact Musk has put together Hyperloop as a direct challenge to California's high-speed rail (HSR) project:

When the California “high speed” rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?

The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving. The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it? (pp1-2)

These are all valid points, and Hyperloop is meant to fill that gap. Musk goes so far as to call it a possible “fifth mode” of transportation (planes, trains, cars and ships being the first four). It's certainly true that, as laid out in the proposal, the Hyperloop is obviously and vastly superior to stodgy bullet train technology. And I have to wonder if the engineer's eye for elegance led him to the $6bn price tag, which is exactly an order of magnitude less that what is envisioned for California's HSR.

Perhaps this is why the Hyperloop has been put forward as a speculative, open source project. It is the private sector playfully pawing at its newfound prey, delivering a lazy but confident threat: if you people don't get your act together, we'll go ahead and build our own thing, which will be twice as cool and cost one-tenth as much. Or perhaps it really is just a bluff.

But for anyone thinking that Hyperloop will help HSR in any way, I have to consider this magical thinking. The example that gets trotted out on occasions like this is the salutary kick in the pants handed to the Human Genome Project (HGP) by Craig Venter's Celera Genomics. Celera used what was at that time an unpopular technique of “shotgun sequencing” to rapidly assemble genetic sequences. This was considered by many scientists to be less accurate than the cloning techniques used by the publicly funded project, but Celera improved the technique enough such that the publicly funded labs were forced to redouble their efforts. The prospect of having Celera publish the human genome before the HGP was simply impossible to countenance. As a result, and in a surprising display of good manners, both HGP and Celera released the first human genome map simultaneously, and three years ahead of the former's schedule.

However, there is a huge difference between sequencing a genome and creating a infrastructure that will span hundreds of miles. In the case of the genome, the competition was over the superiority of technique. The object of the inquiry was always available to be sequenced, and the better technique of targeting that object eventually won. In California, the object and the technique are inseparable. Only one high-speed intercity transport system can even be built – once one is underway there is no reason to begin the other. The initial expenditure is simply too large. But the question is not just what should be built, but where? Consider the two below maps, and try to guess which one represents HSR's proposed route and which shows the Hyperloop's. I'll give you a hint: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have no idea why anyone would want to go to Sacramento.

HyperLoop_route California-High-Speed-Plans

On the other hand, California's High-Speed Rail Authority may not even need Elon Musk or anyone else to torpedo its viability. It seems to be doing the job quite nicely on its own. In what ought to be a classic case of bad timing, a few days after Musk's announcement

A Sacramento County judge dealt a major blow to California's high-speed rail project Friday, ruling that the agency overseeing the bullet train failed to comply with the financial and environmental promises made to voters when they approved initial funding for the project five years ago.

Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the California High-Speed Rail Authority “abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law” and has failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.”

Judge Kenny refused to entirely halt funding for the project, since it is unclear – for the moment – whether he possesses such discretion. There will be another hearing, although the date has yet to be set. And so we are left with one project that could have graced the pages of Omni and another that is entirely feasible but underfunded to the point of flatlining. It's bad enough if one of these projects doesn't get built, but what does it say about the state of both government and the private sector if neither gets built? Although I have to admit that the Hyperloop is, 5 days into its unveiling, already ahead of the bullet train: someone has already printed a 3D model based on the proposal's drawings. Hyperloop Kickstarter campaign, anyone? Here's “where things get tricky,” indeed.