Engineer: Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’ Transportation Scheme Has Little Chance Of Becoming A Reality

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea probably won’t become a reality due to economic and technical challenges, an analysis published Thursday by a Finnish engineer indicated.

The analysis concluded that the company Hyperloop One will face “tremendous challenges” and has only about a six percent chance of successfully executing their business plan. Hyperloop is a proposed transportation device that would move passengers and cargo by propelling a pod-like vehicle through a reduced-pressure tube. Theoretically, the pod could go faster than an airliner due to the near-vacuum conditions.

“Hyperloop is a perfect case for analyzing an innovation at a very early stage,” Timo Miettinen, the engineer who conducted the analysis, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Huge promises, many risks, very few facts, no definite answers.”

Miettinen thinks that Hyperloop One is targeting a real market with significant potential, but has only a mediocre product lacking a clear advantage over competition from planes, trains and cars. Hyperloop One’s entire plan revolves around entering an extremely risk-averse market and it could thus struggle to attract investors, he said.

Miettinen also thinks Hyperloop One is probably overestimating demand for rides. The economic studies Hyperloop One based their proposal on claim that the mere existence of the project will boost travel along the proposed route in by a factor of seven, which he finds very dubious.

“Hyperloop seeks to solve a real problem, but hits major challenges with the go-to-market even if the technological challenges would be solved,” Miettinen said. “It seems that the DNA of Hyperloop One makes this innovation very difficult to buy.”

Musk claimed that Hyperloop would cost a mere $11.5 million per mile. Musk has no formal business association with Hyperloop One, but there are many connections to him throughout the company, which is trying to bring his idea to life. Other estimates range from $84 million to $121 million per mile. Hyperloop One places their cost estimate at “a few billion per 100 kilometers [62 miles] of track.” The company has only raised about $160 million. Miettinen says that this high price tag is likely to scare off investors who may be reluctant to take a risk on such an untested technology.

The company already shows signs of problems, adjusting their investment goal upwards by $250 million more than expected, according to documents obtained by Forbes. Serious legal and corporate problems have plagued Hyperloop projects in the past.

Musk’s critics have also cast doubt on the alleged speed and low cost of the Hyperloop, which are the most important elements of the plan. Michael Anderson, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California Berkeley, predicted that construction costs of the system would reach $100 billion — almost 20 times Musk’s cost estimates of $6 billion. The extra cost would make the economics of the Hyperloop nonviable.

Since Hyperloops are such a new and untested technology, they’re almost certain to face serious technical challenges.

For the Hyperloop to work, it would need a way to pump out roughly 2 million cubic meters of air from its tubes and make sure that the air stayed out of a hundreds of miles long pipe with walls less than an inch thick. In comparison, the world’s largest vacuum chamber only pumps out about 1.5 percent as much air and requires enormous amounts of structural reinforcement to make that work.

Making a vacuum chamber long enough for a Hyperloop would be a huge technical challenge, as the pressure of the air outside the tube would push against the tube with the force of roughly 10 tons per square meter. That’s a huge amount of force to place on a steel tube with walls less than an inch thick. The tube would also have to take the vibration force of a 15 ton capsule going through it at the speed of sound. Merely creating such an enormous near-vacuum chamber and the infrastructure necessary to pump out all the air may prove impossible.

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