Yesterday, in the US capital, I spent two hours in a beautiful fantasy. A world where the usual constraints of time and space don’t apply, where almost everyone in the fractured American nation is connected, closer than ever, united by technology. No, I wasn’t smoking weed, though it’s legal here: I was at the Hyperloop Showcase, where staff at Hyperloop One and those competing to work with the startup came together to sell the company’s Vision for America.
The event, held on the 7th floor of the Newseum in Washington, DC, was intended to showcase the proposals put forward by the 11 American semifinalists for Hyperloop One’s Global Challenge. The teams, among 35 semifinalists globally, are competing to be the first of Hyperloop One’s real-world projects. The teams are largely made up of local and state departments of transportation, engineering companies, and researchers, each with a proposal for a different route connecting cities, both large and small.
Hyperloop One is one of several companies that have cropped up since Elon Musk first debuted the idea of a hyperloop, a super high-speed transit system that would be able to transport people in pods through tubes at blinding speeds, much faster even than air travel. It would work by vastly reducing the air pressure in its “special environment”, meaning the passenger (or cargo) pods could travel extremely fast through the tube, propelled by fans and electromagnetism. Famously, Musk claimed that the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take about 30 minutes.
But Hyperloop One wasn’t in DC to sell people on the as-yet unproven technology, though there were many, many staffers eagerly waiting to answer questions. It was basically assumed that everyone was on board with the notion that hurling people through a metal tube will turn out fine. Instead, the company was here to talk policy, and how it will navigate the regulatory minefield of building such a vast system.
The event’s staging felt like a cross between a posh club and a first class airport lounge — purple mood lighting, pop music blaring, giant screens everywhere — which is rather disorienting at 10 in the morning. An interactive iPad demo allowed guests to explore imagined routes between cities to see how long trips would take by hyperloop pod, and how many hours it would save compared to other forms of transport. There was even fancy fruit to munch on while your mind was nourished with beautiful prognostications. It was a horribly wet day in DC, but I was one of the only people in rain boots and jeans — everyone else was wore neat suits and dresses.
Every Hyperloop One staffer, and every participant there to showcase their route, had a bevy of statistics to back up their expansive vision. The hyperloop would remove 274,000 tonnes of pollutants from the air! Transit by pod and tube would cost two thirds as much as high-speed rail and would be three times faster! The economic benefits would be three to four times larger! The claims were presented with authority and zeal: These true believers really seemed to feel they were going to remake America.
Beneath these slick pitches, there was a message for government officials: We can bring you this magical future, if you’ll just get out of the way and let us do it. In his remarks, CEO Rob Lloyd said that the company’s “work in Nevada”, where the company has built its test track, demonstrates that “things can be done very quickly when people just want them done quickly”. (By “people”, he meant “governments at the federal and state level as well as regulators who can choose to be collaborative in terms of building the safety case and certification,” the company’s spokesperson clarified in an email to Gizmodo.) Other panellists clearly agreed with this: Anthony Foxx, who served as Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, said “government is at the top of the list of things that could limit our ability to seize the opportunity” of the hyperloop.
On regulating safety, Lloyd said Hyperloop One wants a “collaborative approach” to engaging government, saying it’s worked with the Dubai government to “define what we’d need to do to build the safety case so they would certify the technology”. Essentially, he’s saying that since the technology is so new, the company can work with the government to build the technology to meet its safety specifications. That sounds good, but does leave the question of whether that would provide time and framework for adequate testing. Simply hitting some arbitrary spec is not the same as illustrating that the spec is enough.
Beyond the issue of ensuring safety, big regulatory questions remain about how hyperloop will get around land rights and other bureaucratic hurdles. A member of the team from the West project, which would connect LA to San Diego, told me their team is interested in expanding down to Tijuana and the Port of Ensenada in Mexico — isn’t it hard to imagine that squaring with Trump’s border wall?
A slide in CEO Rob Lloyd’s presentation touting the company’s support from state governments.
Hyperloop One is betting heavily on the strategy of piggybacking off existing right-of-way permits for rail developments, so that it doesn’t have to go through the costly, time-consuming process of showing that building the system wouldn’t cause disruption or environmental damage. Lloyd said the company intends to “go down existing right of ways that are in corridors today”. Lloyd also told me after the show that the company hopes to “align” with existing funding programs, like the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program.
It definitely remains to be seen if that strategy will work. And even if it does, piggybacking on other, totally different projects feels hurried and sloppy given that we’re talking about an entirely new and completely untested technology.
In that purple room, with its fruit and its iPads and its incredibly eager salesmen, it was hard to dismiss the wonderful vision that Hyperloop One is selling: Travelling between Seattle and Portland in 17 minutes, or Dallas and Austin in 20 minutes; departures every 20 seconds; whole new economies created by the super-fast transportation of goods from ports to cities. Doesn’t that all sound amazing?
But it’s also clearly a little bonkers. CEO Rob Lloyd said in his remarks that “this stuff could happen inside a couple of years”, not “decades”, if “people want it”. A couple of years? That’s hard to swallow — or at least it should be. Yet US state governments are fighting to be the first to get the hyperloop, and this clamour to get construction underway as quickly as possible has potentially dangerous implications for how rigorously the projects will be vetted and overseen. Hyperloop One is a company selling a product, not a vision for the future — and just as consumers should check claims about the products they buy, governments should check if this is too good to be true before they go all in.