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What if Musk’s hyperloop fails?

A few days back Elon Musk shared a video of the ‘loop’ transit system’s prototype on his social media account. While Musk fans went gung-ho over the concept, a section of the online community roasted the CEO for its design deviations from what was proposed earlier. The system looked more like a mini-bus stationed at a bus-stop, rather the initial concept of smaller pods that can carry about three passengers in a tech-refined station. Viewers were also irked by the non-linear routes, wondering how a highway-ish tunnel would improve transport speed.

Engineering compromises were expected since this was a novel idea that had never been attempted before. But it needs to be contemplated whether these compromises will fail the purpose of the project.

In August last year, another company in the same business, Hyperloop One, launched a test run of its own hyperloop outside Las Vegas. It was a historic run logging around 200 mph on the track. However, the prototype tested by the company, which was apparently inspired by Elon Musk’s idea, again witnessed numerous engineering changes from the originally proposed concept. These were much bigger, slower and less efficient, coming closer to the already existing modes of transport. Hyperloops are meant to carry passenger pods at around 500mph. If the speed proposition is not met, where is the advantage of this new technology that uses massive amounts of investment?

A tunnel built for the hyperloop project
Part of a tunnel built for the hyperloop project (Image Courtesy: The Boring Company)

Affordability was another benefit of Musk’s original concept, but it would depend heavily on how quickly the project gets implemented. There is no doubt that the visionary CEO has come a long way from what was an improbable idea in a four-year span. But administrative and regulatory approvals are time-consuming processes and would require a lot more than a mere vision from the CEO, given the size of the project.

In July last year, the Tesla (TSLA) CEO had announced that the company had obtained “verbal approval” from the government to construct a loop infrastructure that would carry passengers from the capital to New York City in just 29 minutes. The transport would have stops at Philadelphia, and Baltimore. However, for the project to take off, the company would have to take approval from the various state as well as regional administrations, besides a written consent from the federal government.

Hyperloops are meant to carry passenger pods at around 500mph. If the speed proposition is not met, where is the advantage of this new technology that uses massive amounts of investment?

Eight months since the announcement, the Boring Company has only managed to obtain approvals from Baltimore and Los Angeles administrations, besides a digging permit in Washington DC. Digging tunnels could have an environmental impact, and an approval from regulators in this regard could even take years.

The proposed route traverses numerous populated cities and water bodies, where digging would come at a huge cost. In case the project gets delayed by bureaucratic processes, the costs would expand, and in turn, hit the affordability of the transit system.

There is no reason to doubt that Musk’s hyperloop will materialize in a few years. However, if it beats the purpose of the project — speed, efficiency, and cost — a lot of money is at stake.

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