Elon Musk's Ingenious, Implausible Hyperloop

Timothy Lavin writes editorials on politics, economics, taxation and defense for Bloomberg View. He was a senior editor at the Atlantic.
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If you're a nerd like me, it certainly sounds appealing.

Elon Musk, the restless innovator behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, yesterday unveiled the engineering details behind the Hyperloop, an elevated system of steel tubes that he says could move passengers enclosed in aluminum pods from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes, at a total construction cost of $6 billion over 20 years.

Broadly, the technology world responded with exuberant enthusiasm, the transportation world by noting the plan's serial implausibilities.

I think that's probably a fertile combination -- the kind we could use more of.

Transit, by nature, isn't amenable to the innovative pace Silicon Valley is accustomed to. It's beset by daunting fixed costs, chronic political interference and persistent legal and regulatory headaches. And plenty of people have a stake in perpetuating the status quo. That often adds up to imaginative complacency. Ambitious but unproven concepts typically yield to incremental but practical improvements. And so our commutes take as long as they did in the 1950s, but at least the subways are air-conditioned.

By contrast, the tech industry all too often suffers from a deficiency of practicality and a surfeit of optimistic entitlement. Yet that can often be a good thing: It allows for unreasonable approaches to problem-solving that can spark the imaginations of more practical-minded engineers and politicians. Think of Google's autonomous cars -- only a dream about a decade ago; now driving hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles on American roads -- which states are scrambling to integrate into their existing traffic laws.

Musk has been unusually successful in synthesizing these approaches. His ideas -- a fully electric luxury sedan, a private space shuttle -- are the stuff of junior-high notebook sketches. Yet they work in real life. He unites the amateur's imaginative enthusiasm with the pro's pragmatism and cost-conscious efficiency.

Afierce debate has been raging among economists and technologists for the past few years about whether innovation is in long-term decline. There are good arguments on either side, but I think Musk -- and in particular his aptitude for combining the theoretical with the rational and profitable -- offers a salient anecdotal example. The tension between romantic ambition and nuts-and-bolts practicality has driven much of the best in American innovation, from the railroads to the space shuttle to the personal computer. In the dawning age of autonomous technology, that trend seems likely only to accelerate.

The Hyperloop itself may never become a reality, in California or anywhere else. But Musk has clearly captured the public imagination. In doing so, I suspect he also issued a challenge that will be very hard to pass up -- one that may yield some dividends we never expected.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net