For a thing that doesn’t exist, hyperloop is pretty popular. Representatives from 11 American regions trekked to Washington this week to pitch themselves as the perfect proving grounds for the much-hyped “fifth mode of transportation.”
They’re among the 35 semi-finalists in a competition hosted by Hyperloop One, the company leading the race to bring Elon Musk’s idea for a tube-based transportation network to life.
On Wednesday, each American contender went before a panel of judges, bidding for the chance to host Hyperloop One’s first commercial project. In the end, somewhere between three and seven will “win”—meaning they’ll get to try to push this thing through local legislatures, contractor bidding processes, and environmental review boards.
What’s wild is that those finalists represent just .01 percent of the 2,600 teams that entered the fight. Hailing from all over the world, representing local and state governments, regional groups, universities, and private companies, each is eager to welcome a new kind of technology—one that hasn’t even been publicly demonstrated.
Hyperloop in Brief
They’re not the only ones interested. President Donald Trump has asked about the idea, according to The Wall Street Journal. His leading economic advisor name checked Musk and his fantastical transportation ideas while discussing the administration’s forthcoming $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
Hyperloop One global operations chief Nick Earle even intimated the Department of Transportation support its plans, though he declined to discuss details.
You can see why people are excited. American transportation infrastructure is a mess. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost so much to get everything up to an adequate grade, Trump’s $1 trillion will barely get the ball rolling. Commuters in cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta spend upwards of 70 hours a year in traffic. What funds the country spends on roads are poured into new highways, instead of the pockmarked stretches of asphalt that give drivers (literal) headaches.
The scope and intractability of the problem makes the siren song of the hyperloop extra alluring. “Hyperloop is faster, greener, safer, and cheaper than any other mode of transportation,” Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd told WIRED last year. Who wants to shore up bridges and fill potholes when you can jump right to the Silicon Valley-born future?
“We have 5.5 million people in Colorado, and we’re going to be 8 million people in the next 20 years. I can’t build my way out of the current congestion, let alone the congestion that will come,” says Shailen Bhatt, Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director. “We see this as a transformative opportunity to get in early and help prove the concept.”
One problem: Lloyd’s company hasn’t proven any of his claims, and there’s good reason to question them. First, there’s the cost. Land is expensive—California projected more than $770 million in land acquisition costs for just 130 miles of its (over budget) high-speed rail system. Then, there are the people who own that land—and may want to keep it. Putting everything together could be extra expensive, since the hyperloop will likely run underground (greetings from Washington State’s $2 billion tunneling project) or set on elevated tracks. Oh, and those tracks will have to run perfectly straight, unless you’re willing to run the pods slowly so the folks inside don’t barf every time they hit a curve. That complicates planning and construction.
Of course, all that comes after environmental approval, political approval, budgeting approval, regulatory approval—each of which would likely move extra slowly since this is a novel technology. (Hyperloop One acknowledges the red tape, and says it’s a big factor in where it will land. “A key component is the extent to which we could work with regulators to collaboratively create the world’s first regulations for the hyperloop,” says Earle.)
City officials know all this (or they should), but they’re wooing Hyperloop One anyway. Because, despite the doubts, talking hyperloop signals We get it, we’re hip, in a way no bus route can.
“There is an entrepreneurial tech spirit in Colorado,” says Bhatt, who went to DC to represent Team Rocky Mountain’s proposed hyperloop, from Denver International Airport to the city of Greeley, 40 miles to the north. “Between all the millennials that have moved there and all the tech startups that are out there, [the state] wants to embrace new technological solutions.”
For these players, Hyperloop may not be a real solution to problems like congestion, but instead a signal that they’re eager to innovate. “You can seem forward-thinking talking about some futuristic mode of transportation without putting money behind it,” says Paul Lewis, the vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation. “Notice that no [American] city or regional government has put money into the system. But talking about it is free.”
“Thinking alternatively about transportation is a good thing,” says Lewis. But don’t expect to see the hyperloop anywhere near you until someone actually cuts a check—and starts filling out forms.