The Problem with Elon Musk

When first presented with the idea of the Hyperloop (a train running in vaccuum in an underground tube), I was extremely skeptical it made any sense.   Sure it might work (after all the London tube started out as a pneumatic system much like those that older ones of us remember sending receipts around department stores).   But did it make any economic sense.  Was it really likely that, if we can't afford rail lines above ground easily, we could afford to build thousands of miles of air-tight large-diameter tubes?  Honestly, it looked to me like any other silly idea on the cover of Popular Mechanics, right next to the titanium zeppelin the size of Connecticut that would someday be doing construction work.

So enter Elon Musk, who is very passionate about the idea, claims to be convinced it will work, and appears to be putting some money behind it.   With his support, the idea must immediately be treated as more credible, and it does indeed get a lot of press.  But here is the problem for me with Musk:  With him, the idea must also be treated as very probably another attempt by him to drain money out of the taxpayers' pockets into his.  Because that is what he does in so many of his enterprises.

  • beautox

    Elon Must What?

  • Kevin Erdmann

    It's funny that this post comes after the solar farm post. I decided the high speed train was not serious when I saw that solar power is part of the marketing.

  • irandom419

    I wonder if it might make sense in New York City to ferry the workers home faster.

  • SamWah

    Reread the title, Warren!

  • Scott

    Elon, we "must" do this, because its just a great idea or...because I can subsidize my investment with taxpayer money.

  • John O.

    Musk is like a gambler who knows that if he places his bet first, he can con to get other people to bet along with him, then once a sufficient about money is put in the pot, just take the pot and get the hell out of Dodge. What will happen is he'll throw his money in as an initial investment, the venture will show some promise through misleading second and third round investors and he'll get his money back but everybody else gets a venture that is garbage and supported by tenuous government subsidies while it looses money.

  • Andrew_M_Garland

    All government projects are boondoggles, and the bigger the better to hide the favors and expensive contracts among the complexity. Politicians will spend huge amounts to hide the smaller cash flows that count, the ones to their families and friends.

    The government's love for green energy is a classic Bootleggers and Babtists construct. The public wants a better planet. The politicians want grants and loans to support their cronies and more big projects. It is a feature, not a bug, that the green energy projects are new and unproven. When they fail, no one investigates where the money went. But, the contractors for those projects make nice money, and the losses come from unrepaid loans given by the government. (See the great movie "The Producers" for more details.)

    Phase 1: "These are loans, not an expense for the taxpayer."
    Phase 2: "It was new technology, and one can always expect early failures."

    Remember Rahm Emmanuel, former chief of staff for Obama. "Never let a crisis go to waste" when angling for greater power. "Never let a project go to waste" is the plan for government projects.

    === ===
    Future News:

    The VTrain (vacuum tube train) was a great idea and worth pursuing. We have learned much which will be invaluable for future projects. This is how engineering progresses, from early failure to future, glorious success.

    The major engineering was a success. Only a few minor problems stubbornly stand in the way. We will address these in later reorganizations of VTrain USA Inc. The losses have been quite small for a project of this size. There will be a later determination about the repayability of the public startup loans involved in the VTrain.
    === ===

  • Matthew Slyfield

    Speed will be the only possible advantage over a surface train even if the engineering works.

    However, the base capital costs to achieve that speed gain for suburban, largely middle and upper class commuters will end up destroying more basic public transportation options for those who have no other options.

  • MJ

    I think it's intended more as an intercity transportation technology. The problem with using it in an urban area would be the fixed time cost of accessing the stations that travelers would face. Since it would have to be built fairly deep underground, one could liken it to accessing the subway stations in New York or Washington, D.C. You would have to walk down an flight of stairs or an escalator in order to reach the stations, then wait X more minutes for the vehicle to arrive. Then do the same thing on the other end and figure how to get from the station to your final destination.

    For intercity travel, this access/egress cost is usually a lower portion of the total time spent traveling. However, the catch is that there is a limited amount of money that people will be willing to pay to save time on their journey, especially if it is for leisure travel. Recall the financial problems encountered by the concorde. They are fairly similar to what Musk is likely to encounter in marketing this service. I think to some extent he knows this, which is why he is emphasizing the flashy visuals of the technology. This is probably enough to dazzle some laypeople who are fascinated by the technology, and even some of the less careful venture capital investors.

  • Jim Collins

    The problems with the Concorde were government created. Boeing and McDonell Douglas got caught flat footed by the Concorde and financed the anti-SST crowd. The Government did the rest.

  • SamWah

    If you want a truly WILD idea: Gravity Tubes. Check out a Jasper fforde "Tuesday Next" novel, in which they are used (also zeppelins, and elevated trains).

  • Matthew Slyfield

    "The problems with the Concorde were government created."

    Of course they were, although you have the wrong reason. The Concorde itself was government created (a joint venture between the governments of Great Britain and France).

    I am sure that you are referring to the prohibitions against SS flight over populated areas. That restriction also exists in Europe, where Boeing and McDonell Douglas don't have nearly as much clout.

    I'm sorry, but the Concord's operating costs were so high that even without that restriction it wouldn't have been affordable enough to be successful long term. In fact, it was several accidents, all in the EU, caused by maintenance problems that finally shut down Concord flights.

  • Mike Powers

    Musk's attitude is probably that if the government is willing to give him money to do these things, then he's happy to take it.

    And, y'know, at least this government money goes to rocket scientists and electrical engineers and advanced-materials researchers. I could imagine worse recipients of Federal largesse.

  • mesocyclone

    In a way, Musk may spend some of the government's money better than it would be otherwise. Tesla is full of innovation. Musk's space efforts put NASA to shame. As a result, I have mixed feelings about him - he is a true innovator doing real good, but he is also a rentier.

  • marque2

    He has come up with truly innovative way to get people to give him goverentoney to the tune of a billion a year. It is easy to "innovate" with a non profitable company, alive only because of government largess.

    Look at all the innovation in the Wind industry the last 20 years - still doesn't make its good investment.

  • marque2

    ThT and it sucked 3 times the fuel and required 3 x the maintenance.

    Boeing wanted to make the 787 a supersonic jet, but industry didn't want it, they preferred to have a jet that got 30% better mileage thanone that went 30% faster.

  • marque2

    I am not sure why this train has to be under ground. My understanding is that it is not in a vacuum, it will suck the air from the front and release it in the rear. Not much vaccum and the tubes can easily be built above ground.

    This doesn't mean I think it is viable, but then it has a greater chance ,of being successful than Brown's slow speed train boondoggle.

  • markm

    Other than core-city to core-city runs with no intermediate stops (and then only for people who are going to and from the core cities, rather than elsewhere in the metropoli), all passenger trains and other mass transit have a fundamental speed problem: they repeatedly make many people wait while a few get on and off. A higher peak speed between stops does little to shorten the trip time, unless the stops are so far apart that the passengers need other motorized transportation before and after they board the train - and then you have the same problem as with short flights on an airline, you spend 2 or 3 hours getting to the airport, waiting to board, and getting from the airport to your destination for an hour in the air.

  • Dan Wendlick

    Boeing has a concept SST that made it as far as the mockup stage.
    The orders placed on the plane were contingent on cost and performance targets that the engineers knew they could not meet given the technology available to them at the time. Boeing's studies showed that a plane carrying as few passengers as the Concorde could not be profitable even at the low fuel prices of the pre-oil shock late 1960s. For their SST, trans-Atlantic crossing would have used twice the fuel and carry half the passengers as a 747, though taking half the time. Due to the airline regulations in place at the time, carriers were effectively guaranteed to make back their costs on long routes, but doing so would have meant a 400% increase in fares. This likely would have reduced the number of people making these flights to the point where they would not sell enough planes to make manufacture economical.

  • Corky Boyd

    Even if were twice as fast as advertised, the public wouldn't use it. You would be locked in capsule in a tube with no view of the outside world. If there were a malfunction it would take a cutting torch to get to you. If any of you remember the vacuum pipe system used in department stores and bank drive-throughs in the 1950s and 60s, they rattled as they went through the pipes. So will these capsules. And they were far slower than the trans sonic speeds Musk is claiming.

    If he can get a couple of hundred billion from private investors, so be it. But he won't. We will have to pay for it. For me, I'll take a 737 doing 520 mph and view the beautiful California scenery from 35,000 feet for the hour and a quarter it takes me. Unlike Musk's capsule, I can use the bathroom facilities if I need to. Engineers tend to ignore certain necessities in the quest for pushing the envelope.

  • Corky Boyd

    The Concorde was a government vanity project designed to show off the technical prowess of the UK and France. It never made money. It never generated enough cash to pay off its development costs. It cost $3,000 to $4,000 one way in the 1970s. It went into service at the worst time, in the era of the Arab oil embargo and subsequent fuel shortages in the late 1970s. Flying at Mach 2.0 burns a lot of fuel (liquid money), especially with the technology of that era that required afterburners to sustain that speed.

    The Concorde stopped flying when costs became prohibitive. The Paris crash just made it easier to make the decision.

  • Scott

    exactly. the modern american entrepreneur. A salesman for state policy agendas.

  • bannedforselfcensorship

    True, he uses taxpayer money. But he sort of delivers unlike most of these guys.

    I mean, if you had to give a billion dollars to someone, you'd choose him.

  • steve

    Some commenters have claimed that if the government is going to throw a billion dollars at someone Elon Musk is a good choice because he may do something with it. He may, and that is a nightmare. Any government expenditure on such a thing that isn't viewed by the public as a complete waste just results in larger projects and greater expenditures. Far better a high profile billion dollar flop than a success. The only way to finally end these boondoggles is for the public to see government investment for what it is. %90 waste. VonBron and the success of the Saturn V was a disaster. We have been stuck with NASA ever since. It would have been better if it had exploded on the launch pad like his earlier rockets.

  • Eric Hammer

    While I agree there are worse recipients, it is worth noting that these rocket scientists, engineers, etc. are now spending their time doing some that might well be really silly instead of working for someone else on something worthwhile, even if it doesn't pay as well. Crowding out, and all that.

  • Mike Powers

    They wouldn't be working on something "worthwhile", they'd be working on ways to get people clicking on ads, or improving predictive stock-trading algorithms. I have seen many people leave the industry, and they *don't* come back.

  • Eric Hammer

    I wonder how many "rocket scientists and electrical engineers and advanced-materials researchers" work on ways to get people to click on ads. It seems like it would be a small number.

  • Matthew Slyfield


    The costs were prohibitive before the Concord's maiden flight. Despite the high fares, the French and British governments had to subsidize it's operating costs from the beginning.

  • NormD

    I think you should acquaint yourself with the details of Musk's Hyperloop proposal before forming an opinion.
    Musk started developing the idea because he was so frustrated with CA's HSR (High Speed Rail) project that will spend hundreds of billions of dollars for a train that will still move very slowly compared to a plane.
    The core of the proposal is:
    1. Travels through mass-produced tubes mounted on mass-produced pylons installed in a simple manor so crews can do it again and again. This vastly lowers cost.
    2. Is routed in the air above the centerline of major highways, so no need to condemn property. Being high in the air make it much more secure than a ground level train and eliminates the need to create underpasses required by HSR.
    3. It is self-aligning thus earthquake/wind resistant. Also, it cannot derail.
    4. The tubes have air pumped out to reduce air-friction.
    5. People/cargo travel in small capsules that hold around 20 people. Each capsule is individually switched to its final location so no stops/starts at stations along the way. Also there are many, many departures and arrivals per day so no waiting at train stations or airports.
    6. Unlike HSR, It could be used for moving cargo as well as people. I can easily imagine package delivery companies being very interested.
    7. Capsule development is independent of the tube which accommodates many different type/versions of capsules to carry many different types of cargo.
    I am never sure how to react to complaints about people taking government money when proposing to save the government money. This seems to fly in the face of trying to privatize government functions, which seems like a good thing. If I come up with a way of paving roads for half the cost of government contractors, am I bad for taking government money. Strange.
    I think its brilliant idea.

  • Mike Powers

    Nope. Smart is smart, and there's as much demand for number-crunching (and raw intelligence) in the ad-server and financial quant fields as there is in rocket science. And the pay is a damnsight better.

  • Eric Hammer

    I think you are overestimating how easy it is to switch between specialized fields. There are rather large differences in the knowledge and background required for rocket science and quantitative financial analysis. Even within the same field there are people who are better at different sub-disciplines than others, and switching between those is not easy.

  • Mike Powers

    "There are rather large differences in the knowledge and background
    required for rocket science and quantitative financial analysis."

    It's like you think smart people can't learn things.

  • Eric Hammer

    I don't think that you read my comment carefully. Switching is not easy. Not impossible, but not easy. There is a fairly significant amount of learning required, more than one can do in a weekend, a month, maybe even a year. Even longer if you require a new degree or certification to get into a field. People can switch fields, it is just not something they do quickly or frequently. Look through some CVs of various Ph.Ds. Very few do work in more than one or two sub-disciplines, much less across various disciplines. The cost of staying up to date on new techniques and processes is very large, even larger across multiple fields.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} we could afford to build thousands of miles of air-tight large-diameter tubes?

    In California, no less. They'll stay "airtight" for maybe 2, 3 days till the next trivial earthquake.

  • obloodyhell

    Eric is right. Computers, for example, are in such a constant state of flux that being an expert in one sub-area, say, "web development", is a full-time job even if you sat around and did nothing.

  • obloodyhell

    Real engineers aren't the ones promoting this.

    Hucksters are.

  • Mike Powers

    You apparently have a very low opinion of smart people's ability to learn things.

  • Justin

    Why would you assume anyone who thinks it is crazy just isn't familiar with the proposal? My opinion of it actually went down after reading the whole thing. Some specific responses to your points:

    1. Crossties and rails are already standardized and mass produced. Elevated tracks will always require more material and labor. An airtight tube will always require more material and labor than tracks. There is no way this is cheaper on a per mile basis. Capacity might be higher, but that is far from obvious.
    2. This would further complicate construction, increasing costs. Also, the design has turning radius limits that are more strict than rail, and WAY more strict than roads, so this isn't actually possible with existing roads.
    3. If the ground shifts 10 ft, then the tubes will be misaligned by 10 ft, I'm not sure what you mean by self-aligning. In case of an earthquake though everything will be screwed up, so a hyperloop would be no better or worse.
    4. This is the craziest part of the plan. I actually have experience with industrial scale vacuum pumps (from commissioning giant refrigeration systems for processing plants), and I can tell you that you don't just pump the air out and then move on. Actually keeping a vacuum pressure in the tube would require constant compression, at huge operating expense. Also a leak in the vehicle would be much worse than a loss of cabin pressure in a plane, it would be more like a leak in a space craft.
    5. This is all just conjecture on Elon's part, without some more detailed designs to review its not possible to comment on the feasibility of rapid switching. Since we haven't achieved this with standard trains I'm skeptical we could do it with a hyperloop.
    6. HSR could be used for cargo (with the same weight restrictions as for commuter trains), it just isn't because no-one is willing to pay the extra cost. Critical deliveries will use airfreight or hot shot and non-critical will go slow and cheap.
    7. Limited by tube diameter, which is more restrictive than rail.

  • Daublin

    Better advertisement algorithms are a big and obvious boon to humanity, so long as the ads aren't deceiptful. Such systems are the economic equivalent of match makers: they bring together suppliers and purchasers who can otherwise wouldn't have gotten together.

  • Luke

    I would rather give Elon taxpayer money than the government.