Except for All the Details, Elon Musk's Hyperloop Sounds Awesome

Will more fully baked transportation projects be put on hold in hopes that Musk's still-fictional idea works out?

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Courtesy of Hyperloop Alpha

He already has spaceship and electric vehicle companies, and he'd like to fly to Mars, but Elon Musk has another idea to bring us closer to the comic-book future. The Hyperloop is a pod-based transport system that Musk's been toying with, and he revealed more details Monday.

He gave the most information to BusinessWeek's Ashlee Vance, sketching out the design and answering questions about the physics of the Hyperloop.

He describes the design as looking like a shotgun with the tubes running side by side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end. These tubes would be mounted on columns 50 to 100 yards apart, and the pods inside would travel up to 800 miles per hour.

Musk also posted a 57-page PDF proposal called "Hyperloop Alpha," calling it an "open source transportation project."

Among the details contained therein, we find the route that he proposes, which would be more accurately described as Los Angeles to Hayward (not San Francisco). Heyward is a heck of a long way from the Mission (but not too far from Musk's Tesla factory). At the speed Musk is proposing, that would take 38 minutes.

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So, two thoughts on the Hyperloop, which I find to be in tension. First, like anyone who has ever read a sci-fi novel or made the sound "pew-pew" with a raygun made from thumb and forefinger, I think is fantastically cool and wonderful. A pod system that shoots you to LA! Amazing! Even the drawings evoke that '50s can-do futurism. There's none of that dark '60s/'70s technoanxiety in this proposal. None.

Which brings me to thought two: I worry that more fully baked transportation projects might be put on hold in hopes that Musk's still-fictional idea works out. Musk's proposal, because of who Musk is, could serve as a poison dart for California's high-speed rail, and then nothing comes of it, leaving the state with an outdated passenger rail network and no Hyperloop to make up for it.

Musk says he could build a Hyperloop system to transport people for $6 billion or one capable of transporting people and cars for $10 billion.

California's long-suffering high-speed rail project has been projected to cost $68 billion. In part because they have to acquire 1,100 different pieces of land. Just Fresno to Bakersfield, a little over 100 miles, is supposed to cost $7 billion for high-speed rail.

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It's not that there couldn't be cheaper ways of doing things. I'm sure there are. But in comparing Musk's plan with the California HSR proposal, we're looking at two very different levels of detail. Musk's is a sketch. The HSR proposal has been worked over by so many parties for years, and many more costs have been discovered lurking in the details of putting in a major transportation system in the second decade of the 21st century.

California's high-speed rail system may be a boondoggle. But Musk's estimate would be an unfair way to make that point.

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Take the $1 billion allotted for "land and permits" in Musk's plan. Assume that along the 700-miles of the Hyperloop, they can manage to buy just a skinny strip of land 500 feet wide. That'd still be 42,424 acres of land the Hyperloop would need to acquire right down the heart of California. Is that going to be possible? Is it reasonable? Sounds like a lot of lawyer's fees and contract work. But who knows?

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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