So What The Heck Is Hyperloop, Anyway?

One of the big news stories right now is Elon Musk, head of Tesla and one of several very rich individuals trying to build private spacecraft, is now trying to build a “Hyperloop.” But what is it, and why should you care? And can Musk pull it off?

Let’s start with the basics, what the hell is this thing anyway?

Exactly what we predicted when ideas began leaking: A tube with all the air vacuumed out of it that cars fly through using magnetic levitation. It’s better known among futurists as the vactrain.

Oh, so it’s a bullet train?

Kind of. A bullet train doesn’t have the vacuum tunnel, so it has to fight air resistance. “Fight” is probably not the right word here, considering that Japan’s bullet trains can go 200 mph with ease. But Musk’s concept would, in theory, triple that speed.

In theory?

Yeeeeah, one thing Musk doesn’t seem keen on anybody discussing is the fact that nobody has built a vactrain, which is what he’s describing, at the scale he wants to. This is uncharted territory. The physics all make sense and the idea dates to nearly forty years ago, but this would be the first time the concept is tested. Even Musk, who is more than a little disingenuous in his 57-page proposal for the project, is forced to own up to this idea.

Doesn’t California already have a bullet train being built?

It has one that was supposed to be started. This being a government project, things are… not quite going according to plan.

You said Musk was being “disingenuous” earlier?

Oh, completely. It’s not that Musk can’t eventually build this thing, unless there’s a grave engineering challenge that makes it impractical. The physics all make sense. It’s that Musk thinks he can basically slap together a potentially extremely dangerous engineering project in seven to ten years for $6 billion. He even has the cojones to say if he weren’t so busy with SpaceX and Telsa Motors he’d have it done in two.

What are some of the challenges he’s not thinking about?

There’s just one, really, and it’s really best explained with a Parks and Recreation clip. Speaking as a former local journalist, let me reassure you, nothing in these forty seconds is that much of an exaggeration.

If you want to know what bureaucratic hell really is, sit in on a zoning meeting. Zoning meetings are where the insanity of the locals really comes into play in government. Seriously, if there is a guy in your town described as “crazy,” “insane,” “loony,”  etc., he’s probably at the zoning meeting.

It’s so bad, reporters have developed a whole host of contemptuous acronyms for the people who show up to these things. If Musk really thinks trying to build a massive vacuum tube through a bunch of towns and cities won’t involve any zoning meetings, he’s in for a nasty surprise.

But he can build it?

As we said before, if anyone can build it, it’s Musk. He’s enough of a showman and forward-thinking enough that he can make the project work. He’s got the will, and certainly the money, to get it built. But he’s probably going to wish, about five years from now, that he’d maybe considered firing people out of catapults instead.