Why the Biggest Obstacle for Elon Musk's Hyperloop Might Be Tunnels
It all sounds so Jetsonian. A new 600 mph "Hyperloop" method of transportation connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco? That's the buzz around the internet water cooler as people guess what Elon Musk has in store for the transportation of tomorrow. I say, sign me up! But if we take any lessons from past visions of futuristic transportation (as we are wont to do here at Gizmodo) we can probably guess the Hyperloop's greatest hurdle: tunnels.
Nobody but Musk knows what his proposed Hyperloop transportation system might look like. We've gotten hints that it's supposed to be "a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table." But despite some random online guesses partially validated by Musk himself, no one will know for sure what Hyperloop is until maybe August 12th. What we do know is that anything he proposes won't be easy without some drastic cost-cutting improvements in the way that we dig tunnels. Because not only are tunnels a necessity, they're also incredibly expensive.
Hyperloop Needs to Go Underground
A couple of months ago, Business Insider was the first to point out that Musk's proposed transportation system (well, what little we knew about it) sounded like something that had been studied at the Rand Corporation back in the summer of 1972. Rand looked at what was called Very High Speed Transit (VHST), which would provide a network of futuristic underground trains, allowing people to travel between Los Angeles and New York City in less than half an hour.
This VHST would be traveling at speeds as high as 14,000 miles per hour and would be expandable. The proposal included stops in Amarillo, Texas and Chicago, Illinois and from those four major hubs people could one day travel to other major cities in the U.S.
The Rand study raises some of the same issues that will likely become problems, should Musk's plans make it beyond the concept stage. The first is that anything this fast (600 mph if you want to get between L.A. and San Francisco in just 30 minutes) can't have any dramatic turns unless you want people vomiting constantly.
"The most demanding technical problem is that of lateral accelerations. A vehicle traveling at 550 mph cannot undergo sharp turns," the 1972 Rand study explained. "This requirement imposes strong constraints on the design of the guideway and would create a great difficulty if one attempted to run the VHST above ground."
This, of course, is a problem for anything running in America's most populous state between America's second most populous city and America's fourteenth most populous city. There are a lot of people and trees and roads and McDonald's between L.A. and San Fran. Barring a strange loop out into the ocean, you have to go underground.
And if Hyperloop has to go underground, that means any money saved by the tech won't make up for the fact that the highest costs for this kind of infrastructure have to do with digging the tunnels. As the Rand study put it:
Once the assumption is made that underground tunnels are necessary in order to travel at speeds competitive with present (and future) aircraft, another aspect of the problem becomes evident. Over 90 percent of the system cost will result from the tunnel itself.
Ninety percent of any system that's sure to break the billion dollar mark isn't exactly chump change. But we've known, even before the 1972 study, that finding ways to more efficiently dig tunnels would be vital for transportation systems of the future.
The Retrofuture of Digging Tunnels in "Our New Age"
Back in 1969 the academic, inventor and popular futurist Athelstan Spilhaus imagined that if we could just find more efficient ways to burrow through the earth, the transportation of the future would follow right behind.
Spilhaus wrote a comic strip called "Our New Age" that was started shortly after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. Why would a respected academic launch a newspaper comic? Because he was concerned that kids of the time (those darn Baby Boomers) weren't showing enough interest in science. "Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education," Spilhaus would explain years later.
His November 16, 1969 edition of "Our New Age" looked specifically at the tunneling of tomorrow. Cheaper methods of tunneling — what he called a "mechanical mole" — would let the transportation of tomorrow become subterranean. The noise and pollution of the modern city would conveniently become hidden away, deep underground.
In the future, these mechanical moles would become much more powerful, drastically reducing costs for anything from subways to underground auto-tunnels to, yes, a Hyperloop.
Of course, finding cheaper methods of tunneling isn't the only hurdle for making the hypothetical Hyperloop happen.
There are all kinds of reasons that brilliant technology doesn't take off: lack of consumer demand, access to capital, and the political realities of building something that affects so many people, businesses and municipalities. What happens when any of the dozens of towns along the proposed route won't allow tunneling construction without a stop being placed for them?
We have the technology to make jelly beans taste like freshly mowed grass, rotten eggs and ear wax. I know, because I tasted them. But not surprisingly, there's very little demand for these flavors outside of kids who want to play Harry Potter Mouth Roulette. Just because the technology is there doesn't mean it's going to be successful.
Musk's back-of-the-napkin designs for a futuristic method of transportation are more than welcome. We need more visionaries in the world who embrace the techno-utopian idealism that pushes humanity forward. But Musk's strong suit has always been surrounding himself with incredibly intelligent, driven people and then getting things done. Musk knows as well as anyone that tremendous political obstacles can derail a good idea. But speaking as a purely selfish entity who would love to travel between L.A. and San Francisco in the amount of time it takes to watch a sitcom, here's hoping this one has enough momentum to stay on track.
Images: scanned from the November 16, 1969 edition of "Our New Age"
This article originally appeared at Gizmodo.