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the Hyperloop is or isn’t an economically viable alternative to the rail project. The only way to find out is to try building it, starting with extensive computer simulations, followed by the construction of a test track.
This will involve no small risk and expense, given the distances required to accelerate an 8,400-lb capsule to 760 mph, then slow it back down. Even a tycoon like Musk can’t finance something like that out-of-pocket. California voters set aside $9 billion in state bonds for the rail project; to level the playing field and jumpstart the market for a next-generation land-based mass transportation system, we need an incentive prize like the Smog to Fog Challenge.
If the California High Speed Rail Authority finishes first, great—winning the prize would reduce the cost to taxpayers by $10 billion. If some hypothetical Hyperloop Consortium wins (I’m seeing a collaboration between Tesla, Bombardier, and Lockheed Martin in my crystal ball) then we end up with a really cool way for hipster documentary-makers in San Francisco to zip down to Hollywood for the Academy Awards or for Angelenos to grab dinner at the Slanted Door.
But who could fund such an enormous prize? I’d like to nudge the big Los Angeles and Silicon Valley biotech, defense, Internet, and computing companies, who have a vested interest in the quality of life in California, to step up. For if nothing else, a system as fast as the Hyperloop could be seen as a really fat data pipe. Musk thinks a Hyperloop capsule will be able to carry passengers and luggage weighing up to 2,800 kilograms. If you replaced all of that weight with 1-terabyte hard drives and rushed them from L.A. to San Francisco in 35 minutes, you’d get an effective bandwidth of 4.8 terabits per second. That’s about 50 times faster than today’s state-of-the-art 100-gigabit Ethernet networks.
So that’s my proposal. I went into my study of Musk’s design document thinking that the Hyperloop was, well, loopy, and that the hordes of instant critics this week were probably right. I came out thinking that the concept might just be feasible—and hoping that Californians, and Americans, haven’t lost the ability to think big. Let’s keep moving forward on high-speed rail—it’s one of the only audacious projects on the docket right now. But let’s also give Musk some room to put the Hyperloop to the test.