Time sure does fly. It was just over five years ago – August 2013 – when Elon Musk released his Hyperloop “white paper,” setting the imaginations of the tech world on fire. 2018 was all about his new razzle dazzle proposal – the Boring Company – but I thought it was time to take a look back at the original Hyperloop hype and the progress since then.
As a reminder, here is what that paper proposed:
A new high speed mode of transport is desired between Los Angeles and San Francisco; however, the proposed California High Speed Rail (HSR) does not reduce current trip times or reduce costs relative to existing modes of transport. This preliminary design study proposes a new mode of high speed transport that reduces both the travel time and travel cost between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The total trip time is approximately half an hour, with capsules departing as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal and carrying 28 people each. This gives a total of 7.4 million people each way that can be transported each year on Hyperloop. The total cost of Hyperloop in this analysis is under $6 billion USD.
At the time, I pointed out that the half-baked plan appeared to be just an attempt to delay the HSR project in favor of a future silver bullet. The reason for that conclusion is that the paper made an effort to downplay the HSR project while misrepresenting what the Hyperloop was promising. The biggest red flag was that the proposal didn’t actually go into San Francisco or Los Angeles, which is where the biggest expense would be. Other folks, like Alon, took issue with some of the engineering promises.
Looking back through the document, five years later, I am a bit surprised to find that the claims are less hyperbolic than what I remembered. Misleading, yes, but not outrageous. A reason I am a bit surprised is because Elon Musk’s behavior has deteriorated significantly since then. From a USA Today article:
After reading Musk’s 57-page proposal, Sam Jaffe, senior research analyst at clean technology firm Navigant Research, was impressed with Musk’s willingness to release the report with “excruciating detail” and openly invite criticism. “What he’s done is amazing. He wrote it and said, ‘Criticize this,'” Jaffe says. “And it’s worthy of being criticized.”
Of course, Hyperloop has existed as more than just a paper, as it spurred the creation of an entire industry of hype. It’s through interviews, press releases, and “demonstrations” where the more ludicrous claims emerged. I still chuckle at the render of the Hyperloop next to the Golden Gate Bridge, where apparently the concept of boats larger than kayaks was not known.
At first, much of the hype was based around the idea that Musk could do no wrong, and the government couldn’t do anything right.
“I expect [Musk] will prove, once again that the private sector (and not the government) should be handing public transportation,” Draper told me yesterday after the Hyperloop announcement. “He is smart to go after inefficient government public works.”
For years, government has been a nuisance to Elon Musk. It’s slowed him down. It’s required him to spend his valuable time lobbying his Twitter followers for support in the New York legislature instead of building rockets. It’s required him to explain his mind-bending technical innovations to grayhairs in Congress as if he were speaking to schoolchildren. Over and over, the public sector has convinced Musk that it is hopelessly lost when it comes to matters of innovation, and that anything truly revolutionary must spring from the ambitions of the private sector.
That’s not a new idea. Incredibly naïve and black and white, sure, but standard fare. Predictably, Republicans ate it up. From 2014:
Entrepreneur Nicholas Garzilli has submitted language to the state attorney general for an initiative that would block the issuance of bonds and construction of the high-speed rail project beyond the first leg to allow time to build a pilot project with competing technology. He also wants the California Public Utilities Commission to find or acquire right-of-way where a Hyperloop-like technology could be tested and compared against the first phase of the bullet train.
Garzilli’s proposed Transportation Innovation Act says: “While California wastes billions of taxpayer funds on old transportation technology, new technologies are being developed and employed in other cities, states and countries.” And the billions of dollars being spent to build high-speed rail are “creating economic disincentive for competition and innovation.”
Obviously, that didn’t go anywhere. So while attempts to actually stop HSR in favor of Hyperloop failed, that didn’t stop the rhetoric – much of which was repeated in 2018 with the Boring Company stuff (why should LA build subways when ELON IS COMING WITH CAR TUNNELS?)
A couple of companies popped up peddling the Hyperloop idea. In late 2014, one of them (Hyperloop Transportation Technologies) announced that via crowdsourcing, Hyperloop would be ready by 2024. From this point on, the companies developing Hyperloop started to follow a similar strategy: focus on the rider experience and sort of ignore all the actual engineering.
There were renderings of business class seats. Discussions about rider comfort. The “important” issues like bathroom use and virtual windows. Big picture thoughts about a national network.
What was missing were actual details on how to build the thing. And costs? Well, Elon said it would be cheap, and that’s good enough. I chuckled at this comment from 2014:
The other goal is to keep it cheap. While his plan envisions making luxury pods available, Ahlborn said the estimated ticket price for economy-class seats would be about $20 to $30. But he said rides would ideally be free — perhaps supported by ads, to take advantage of time spent with a captive audience of travelers.
Reminds me of Elon’s recent announcement of a transportation system to Dodger Stadium, which will presumably open by 2020 and cost $1 a ride. Details? Don’t worry about it, only $1!
As of 2014, it was totally happening soon (they predicted the details would be worked out in 2015).
“I have almost no doubt that once we are finished, once we know how we are going to build and it makes economical sense, that we will get the funds,” Ahlborn says, and Musk’s cost estimate of $6-10 billion for a 400-mile stretch of Hyperloop is on point, based on the team’s work.
In 2015, some stuff did start to happen – a Hyperloop demonstration test!
Will be building a Hyperloop test track for companies and student teams to test out their pods. Most likely in Texas.
That was good enough for the media, as the lead on this Wall Street Journal article from November 2015 shows:
Two years after the Tesla CEO crowdsourced the idea for the Hyperloop, his dream of a ‘fifth mode’ of transportation is quickly and quietly becoming a reality, but what’s his endgame?
Wall Street Journal
Quickly and quietly – ha!
As an aside, from that same article:
Quay Hays of GROW Holdings is laying out the plan for Quay Valley, the city he hopes will be a model for California’s future . . . His first attempt to launch Quay Valley was thwarted by litigation over water rights and the financial crisis of 2008; the new plan is to break ground on the site, a 7,200-acre expanse halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometime in 2016. When that happens, the world will be watching, and not just for the promised sustainability—Quay Valley also plans to feature the world’s first working Hyperloop, built by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies at an estimated cost of $100 million to $150 million.
2016 passed. How’s Quay Valley going?
The futuristic Quay Valley project halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along Interstate 5 in the southern San Joaquin Valley is dead after the developer of the proposed new city told local officials he’s calling it quits.
Developer Quay Hays of Los Angeles sent a letter dated Dec. 6 to officials in Kings County stating he was withdrawing his application for a new community plan. He did not not give a reason.
Woops. (And thank God for that!)
Anyway, some tests have happened, and they’ve produced some decent headlines. In early 2017, they re-invented maglev in an enclosed tube, but the vehicle was pushed along by another unit (youtube video).
Later that year, they got the speeds up a bit higher.
WARR Hyperloop, a team composed of students from Technical University of Munich, clinched the win after its pod reached a top speed of 324 kilometers per hour (201 mph). Teams tested their system on SpaceX’s 1.25-kilometer test track.
In 2018 they reached a higher speed, but the competition had dwindled to three teams.
It was a hyperloop hat trick by a team of German engineering students at the third annual SpaceX pod competition on Sunday. WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich took home the top prize — and set a new record — with their self-propelled pod reaching a top speed of 284 mph (457 km/h).
Still slower than existing high speed rail, and in a test environment very different from what a real-world system would look like, but you can’t argue that nothing has been done. For reference, the highest speed obtained by a real Maglev system was 603 km/h (375 mph) in Japan.
However, if we jump back to the 2015 WSJ article…
Dirk Ahlborn, HTT’s chief executive, wants little to do with the SpaceX contest. Ahlborn founded HTT three months after Musk’s “Hyperloop Alpha” paper hit the Internet, and while he maintains a friendly relationship with Musk, he calls the contest a distraction. “A half-scale model is of no use to us now, and so their specs are also not relevant to us,” Ahlborn says. His company is focused on Quay Valley. “We are past the prototyping phase and have developed our own proprietary technology,” Ahlborn tells me. “I know you need to portray this as a race, but I don’t see it as a race. We’re not competing with them. Our competitors are other forms of transportation. If it were a race, it would be over.”
Besides Quay Valley (woops), these guys were so confident in their progress they started signing up deals all around the world. Wikipedia summarizes it best:
HTT announced in May 2015 that a deal had been finalized with landowners to build a 5-mile (8 km) test track along a stretch of road near Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In December 2016, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and the government of Abu Dhabi announced plans to conduct a feasibility study on a Hyperloop link between the UAE capital and Al Ain, reducing travel time between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to just under 10-minutes. In September 2017, HTT announced and signed an agreement with the Andhra Pradesh government to build a track from Amaravathi to Vijayawada in a public-private partnership, and suggested that the more than one hour trip could be reduced to 5 minutes through the project.
For yet undisclosed reason, neither the test track that HTT announced in May 2015 nor any other test track has been built in the last 3 years.
I believe the undisclosed reason is “they’re grifters”.
Supposedly, they finally started their test track construction earlier this year…in France.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has announced that it will begin building the first of two test tracks at its facility in France. In a statement, the company said that the first shipment of tubes has arrived at its R&D site in Toulouse. The first track, which is about to enter construction, is a ground-level setup running around 320 meters in length. It’s thought that the smaller run will be ready for testing at some point this year.
You won’t be shocked to learn that there hasn’t been much of an update on that. in August, they released a tweet that showed pretty much the same thing we saw in April. They do keep throwing out dates though:
HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn told CNBC he hopes to have a full hyperloop system up and running in three years. “In three years, you and me, we can take a hyperloop,” he said. Ahlborn added that passengers would need to sign a waiver before boarding a hyperloop as regulators continue to work out legal and safety requirements. He said worldwide adoption of hyperloop transport could come in “maybe five to 10” years once a legal framework is in place.
These guys are absolutely fantastic at renders though
They’ve even got themselves a vehicle now.
Surely this sets off alarm bells?
Unlike its rival Virgin Hyperloop One, HTT has yet to complete a successful test of its hyperloop capsules.
HTT has focused its efforts on securing regulatory approvals and legal frameworks for hyperloop travel. Last year, it announced a strategic partnership with insurer Munich Re to develop insurance for high-speed capsule transportation.
“The passenger needs to be at the center,” Ahlborn said.
Yes, lets talk about passenger insurance and not if the system can operate. Or costs.
Meanwhile, Hyperloop One founder Brogan BamBrogan started yet another Hyperloop related company called Arrivo in 2017 (yes this is confusing). And then essentially admitted that the Hyperloop concept wouldn’t work and threw out this idea:
Arrivo plans to build on existing roadways and use electronics and magnets to accelerate the autonomously moving pods. Pods would hold cars, freight or, like a mini bus shuttle, people.
That great adventure lasted about a year. From December 2018:
L.A. based Hyperloop company Arrivo shuts down its operations. Company’s employees were laid off in November. Arrivo is shutting down because it hasn’t been able to secure new funding. Remaining employees were texted or called last Friday.
Alas here we are in 2019, and not a single working model has been built, and yet some of the greatest hits in PR keep rolling out. Believe it or not, this quote is from last week:
CTO and co-founder Josh Giegel says consumers will be able to ride working hyperloops within the next few years.
“We’re talking mid 2020s,” he says, talking about when hyperloop concepts like Virgin One’s Devloop will be passenger-ready. “We’re talking about years, and we’re not talking about decades.”
The biggest bit of progress, in my opinion, is that tech media have apparently learned to be a bit more skeptical. Most of the “news” is now only covered by fringe websites and such. Occasionally, a local paper will report when a Hyperloop PR team is in town promising to do some form of concept study or test.
California High Speed Rail, on the other hand, is a bit more tangible. Massively delayed, yes, but you can walk right up to it and know that it’s real, and it’s coming. Hyperloop is still a theory, and a lesson that when a tech guy predicts a transportation timeline, take it with a very large grain of salt.