You know why I didn’t like Elon Musk a few years ago? Because of PayPal. Because he seemed like a dilettante. Yet another Valley guy who was ignoring all the hard work and ingenuity that had gone into systems like infrastructure and space travel for the last 50 years; another nerd who thought every system was as mutable as a computer. I was wrong.
SpaceX has shown that commercial spaceflight can improve on launch costs over what NASA can provide through other contractors. Tesla has the first top-rate electric car and has a shot of bringing the technology mainstream. Even PayPal, as annoying as it may be from time to time, is something I use at least once a month without complaint. Musk has proven that he’s not just some more-clever-than-thou daydreamer, but a man who’s willing to bet real money on real projects, to get his hands dirty proving these entrenched systems can be changed.
Today Musk finally showed his plans for Hyperloop, a new take on high-speed land-based travel, offering up both his initial plans from his team of engineers for free, but appearing to — at the last second — decide that the best way to prove that Hyperloop is a viable option for travel is to pony up the funds for a prototype himself.
Many are sceptical. How will California get clearance through the 900 miles of land needed for the elevated tube route? How much will the clearance cost? Is Hyperloop safe? Is it really going to be as relatively inexpensive as Musk claims? How will people pee? What about terrorism? How will people sit for 30 minutes inside a tube that smells like pee?
The questions are valid. But I think Musk has earned an exception from scepticism. He’s proven that his crazy ideas have a pretty good chance of working.
Elon Musk gives me hope. I wake up most days with the presumption that humanity is going to quickly eat up the planet, pump all the oil and gas out of the ground, set it on fire, then fight each other under a dim sun for the last unopened Snapchat-branded promotional breath mint. Today a billionaire decided to give the world his plans for a better train. And not just a better train that will be a premium conveyance for the rich, but a $US20-a-ride super-subway that will make its own power through solar.
Maybe it won’t work. It’s almost certainly going to cost more than estimated, because that’s just how these large-scale infrastructure projects work. But it’s not a nutso amount of money, compared to similar projects. Even if the Hyperloop went over Musk’s cost projection five times over, it’d still cost half of what is projected for the high-speed rail project in California. (Although to be fair, a lot of that cost is land rights, which Hyperloop would probably face to some extent, even with its elevated towers and tubes.) If I were the governor of California, I’d pony up a few million bucks today just to find out if the Hyperloop idea is feasible in a prototype stage. They’ve already got the route more or less cleared; worst case, they could build a Hyperloop route alongside the rail system.
We should be cheering Musk on. We need innovation in this country that goes beyond squeezing a few more profits out of the status quo by ignoring the looming energy and environmental crises. American engineering was never just about refinement of others’ ideas: It was about proving that the old world could be left behind, that audacious marvels could become everyday conveniences by only embracing them and their inventors.
We like to tell ourselves we’re the best at everything in the world. (It’s probably the thing we’re best at.) There are times that’s been at least partially true. We certainly did a good job transforming a resource-rich scrap of land into a manufacturing and engineering empire, with enough time and money left on our hands to figure out how to litter on the moon. Today many of our cities are falling apart, our suburbs are mostly failed dreams, and we’re poisoning our groundwater just to get at dwindling resources we’ve been telling ourselves we’re going to quit for at least 30 years. We could have a thousand Elon Musks launching crazy schemes before we’d run out of big problems in need of fixing.
But at least we have one.