Did Musk come up with Hyperloop to stop California’s high-speed rail?
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop performed as well as most of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s bigger ideas: it’s behind scheduleand so far all we have seen is unconvincing prototypes. A recent Time Paris Marx article argues that when it comes to Hyperloop, it’s by design, alleging Musk proposed Hyperloop as a way to distract California lawmakers from a long-discussed high-speed rail project. The implication here – that Musk wanted to crush a public transit proposal in hopes of selling more cars – is familiar to anyone who knows History of the American automobile.
Marx is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley is wrong about the future of transportation. In his Time article, he supports his assertion with a passage from the biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the quest for a fantastic futureby Ashlee Vance. While writing this biography, first published in 2017, Vance hosted monthly dinners with Musk and visited Tesla and SpaceX headquarters on several occasions. So I called Vance to try to figure out what’s behind Hyperloop. Is this an elaborate effort to undermine high-speed rail? Is this yet another half-baked proposition thrown around by a guy famous for his half-baked ideas? Would it be both?
In his Time article published online August 8, Marx lays out a well-justified skeptic’s view of Musk’s accomplishments and motivations. The the whole article is worth readingbut this is the segment that caught my attention:
Elon Musk has exercised a virtual monopoly on how we think about the future, but will his visions really deliver a better life for most people in our society? For all the tech industry talk of “disruption,” keeping us all trapped in cars for decades into the future by fitting them with upgraded batteries or computers doesn’t really sound like a revolution.
A much more sustainable alternative to mass electric vehicle ownership is to phase out cars altogether, which means making serious investments to create more reliable public transport networks, building cycling infrastructure so people can cycle cycling safely and revitalizing the rail network. after decades of underinvestment. But Musk has continually tried to block such alternatives.
It has a history of floating false solutions to the downsides of our overreliance on cars that stifle efforts to give people other options. The Boring Company was meant to solve traffic, not be the Las Vegas merry-go-round it is now. As I wrote in my bookMusk admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get lawmakers to cancel high-speed rail plans in California, even though he had no intention of building it.
Several years ago, Musk said that public transit was “a pain in the ass” where you were surrounded by strangers, including possible serial killers, to justify its opposition. But the futures sold to us by Musk and many others in Silicon Valley weren’t just about their personal preferences. They were designed to meet business needs and caused as many problems as they claimed to solve, if not more.
Marx supports the Hyperloop argument with a link to his own tweetwhich shows a screenshot of the following passage from Musk’s 2017 biography of Vance (I’ve emphasized where Marx highlighted the text):
At the time, it seemed Musk had introduced the Hyperloop proposal only to get the public and lawmakers to rethink high-speed rail. He had no real intention of building the thing. It was more that he wanted to show people that there were more creative ideas for things that could actually solve problems and move the state forward. Hopefully the high-speed train would be cancelled. Musk told me as much [Ashlee Vance] during a series of emails and phone calls leading up to the announcement. “Later I might fund or advise on a Hyperloop project, but right now I can’t take my eyes off SpaceX or Tesla,” he wrote.
When I spoke with Vance, who is currently senior editor at Bloomberg, he called Marx’s conclusion “vaguely accurate but a dishonest interpretation of the situation”. From Vance’s perspective, Musk’s early Hyperloop announcements were “more of a reaction to how disappointing California high-speed rail is.” [proposal] has been.”
Musk first discussed the idea of a Hyperloop-style bullet train system in 2012; a year later, in August 2013, Musk released a white paper suggesting a design for a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco where pressurized passenger capsules would travel through a tube system operating under partial vacuum to reach speeds of up to 700 mph. During our conversation, Vance described Musk’s proposal as strictly a thought experiment, which Musk had no intention of working on. “Tesla and SpaceX were in more precarious positions than they are today,” Vance told me. “He had plenty on his plate. Elon put all the ideas out in the open for anyone to use.
I pointed out to Vance why this notion — that Musk imagined Hyperloop as an attempt to distract from a more conventional, perhaps more realistic rail project — seems logical. Musk has repeatedly depicts public transit like a dangerous and unpleasant hell, and he sells a lot of Teslas in California.
“He’s the richest man in the world, he’s used to his private planes, so maybe public transit is a little below him these days,” Vance said with a laugh. “Honestly, I don’t think that’s what Hyperloop is all about. I think if there was a better public transportation system, my impression – and I think it’s genuine – is that Elon would be all right. agreed.
Vance then made a valid point: “In all this time we’ve been talking about bullet trains, there’s still almost none being built… At that time, Elon built a global charging network of electric cars and moved the entire world onto electric cars.
“At this point, however, Hyperloop is basically no further advanced,” I offer. “We have a tunnel full of Teslas in Las Vegas moving at essentially the same speed as traffic.
“The Boring Company is one of [Musk’s] businesses that I’ve never understood, really,” Vance replied. “I completely understand your point of view. In general, however, no part of me believes that Elon was trying to kill public transport to keep people in cars. I just don’t believe that… Elon didn’t even have to whine about the bullet train project for him to undermine himself.
For Vance – who spent more time with Elon Musk than most people who aren’t employed at Tesla or SpaceX, Hyperloop was a “crazy thought experiment” that Musk launched into the world, to which a handful of startups hung on. “Half the physicists who looked at the white paper were like, this is just laughable,” he told me. “He kind of just threw that idea over the wall and was like, you guys are going to do with it what you want… Is it up to him, or is it up to some of these officials to take it seriously?”
“If I’m a civil servant and you tell me you have a better, faster, cheaper option for high-speed rail, I’m inclined to believe you,” I replied. “Does the guilt lie with the person selling the idea or the person buying it?”
“Elon never really sold the Hyperloop after the announcement,” Vance said. “The tunnel thing, I think, is much more debatable. I still don’t understand how The Boring Company digs tunnels faster or better than anyone else. Unlike SpaceX, Tesla, it is not clear to me that there is a major innovation in the tunnel. I just don’t understand what the breakthrough is on that one.
“So did Elon try to sell a green project to make money? Or did he just get an idea and let it go? I asked Vance.
“I’m 99.9% sure it’s the latter,” Vance tells me.