The Scam of the Future - Fancy Hyperloops and Underground Highways

Dhanush Ekollu

September 2, 2022

Throughout history, visionaries have proposed grand futures. Flying cars and horses of steel! Yet, all these futuristic machines seem to have one common denominator: they only build upon ideas of the present. Machines were the future, and horses were the present, so the proposed idea was a horse made of steel. Cars were what people used to get around, so it only takes a 5-year-old’s imagination to want to make them fly. This is why all claims of the future must be taken with a grain of salt, always. Ideas of the future are usually too clouded by the present and what feels futuristic and flashy, rather than what is genuinely practical and useful.

On the 12th of August, 2013, Elon Musk released his first design of “Hyperloop Alpha”. Immediately after companies started using Musk’s idea, they removed the air cushion technology and used magnetic levitation instead. While that may seem like a small change, the hyperloop was already no longer Musk’s idea.

This is because concepts using maglev, extremely low-pressure tubes, etc. have existed since the middle of the 20th century, the French Aérotrain being a perfect example of this. Invented in the 1960s, it promised to revolutionalize transport in Paris and reach speeds up to 180 km/h. It would use air cushion technology to run from Cergy-Pontoise to La Défense, a 23-kilometer route, in 10 minutes. If you couldn’t already guess, this train isn’t heard of today.

For most high-speed rails, the biggest problem they face is rolling friction. Steel wheels on tracks, while generating far less friction than rubber wheels on the road, do still generate friction. Ideas like magnetic levitation and air cushioning try and remove rolling resistance so that these trains can achieve much higher speeds. The current fastest train in the world, the Shangai Maglev, can go at a top speed of 268 miles per hour. Apart from this extremely short train, most other high-speed rails (especially the famous TGV and Shinkansen trains) still use traditional steel wheels on a steel track. This is because maglev is ridiculously expensive. 

The average cost of the maglev track for the Shangai Maglev is around $40 million per kilometer. In comparison, the French TGV cost only $4 million per kilometer. (Around $20 million in today’s money). Let me emphasize that point again–maglev is over twice as expensive per kilometer as regular high-speed rail!

Now, Elon Musk is proposing to put a large tube around that same maglev track, stretching for hundreds of miles, and maintaining a pressure of 100 Pascals (or the pressure 150,000 feet above sea level). Creating a vacuum is hard. Creating an extreme vacuum and maintaining it over hundreds of miles is nearly impossible. 

However, Elon Musk somehow managed to estimate a cost of only $19.2 million per kilometer for this engineering marvel. As expected, this was not the case. Leaked documents showed that the cost of this massive project would be upwards of $150 million per mile, or 7.5 times as expensive as one of the most amazing high-speed rail networks in the world, the French TGV. 9 years of hype, testing, and development later, the top speed a hyperloop has ever achieved is 240 mph by Virgin Hyperloop. The TGV has gone 357 miles per hour at its top speed already.

From the period between when Elon Musk released his first tweet about the hyperloop and today, China has built almost 30,000 kilometers of high-speed rail. The California High-Speed Rail project that was supposed to connect Anaheim and San Francisco barely has 600 kilometers approved. You can take a 600-kilometer trip on the TGV in France in under 3 hours for $50, cruising along at a speed of 320 kilometers per hour, while in California, your only options are either to take a 5-hour drive or a 40-minute flight with hours of wait time and inefficiencies between LA and SF. If you want to take Amtrak's flagship Coast Starlight train, it takes almost 9 hours.

While the rest of the world expanded its existing train infrastructure to transport people more efficiently than ever, we were so caught up in the hype of the hyperloop that we’ve made little progress, while hindering the progress that was already made. Now, as Musk is suggesting giant underground highways to help with traffic (which is essentially a more expensive extra lane), we still don’t get the message. Trains have proven over and over again to be one of the most efficient forms of transport. They carry thousands of people at a time, without traffic, at speeds far faster than cars can ever realistically achieve on highways, all while providing an extremely safe and comfortable experience. They are a tried and true, proven means of transportation. The hyperloop, vegas loop tunnels, etc. are all just bad imitations of trains and subways–futuristic in looks, but barely functional in terms of practicality. Every time we try and find an answer for efficient ground transport solutions, we keep landing on trains.

Finally, almost as if it couldn’t have a more ironic ending, Elon Musk recently admitted that the hyperloop was just a scam to hinder the construction of the California HSR. Still, people seem to be following him in a trance, nevertheless looking up to him with every new “revolutionary” idea he proposes. Apart from the problems mentioned in this article, there are many other problems with the engineering of the hyperloop too (which was badly thought through to begin with) such as maintaining a giant tube in a tectonically active zone, air buildup in front of the pod, etc. 

On April 25th, 2022, Elon tweeted, “From a known physics standpoint, [the hyperloop] is the fastest possible way of getting from one city center to another for distances less than ~2000 miles. Starship is faster for longer journeys”. It’s about time we realize that Elon Musk didn’t know what he was talking about.