Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, Part 2, Musk and Hyperloop

David Salaverry
Founded CCAG to fight the 2011 redistricting battles and is currently a candidate for Supervisor in San Francisco's 6th District in 2014. His website is davidcarlos2014.com.

I noted in Part 1 that Elon Musk doesn’t plan to actually build Hyperloop.  Rather, he has thrown down a gauntlet to other visionaries—in technology, business, finance and in government.  Musk has “crowdsourced” his dream.  Traditional power centers find this absurd, but it may be a brilliant guerilla strategy against entrenched CAHSRA bureaucrats, unions, crony construction corporations and the Democratic Party for whom HSR is a signature issue.

Why is Musk crowdsourcing?

Musk is himself a lone, entrepreneurial technologist.  Musk may have a brilliant crew, but it is a skunk works—a toddler organization.  If his crew is brilliant, if they work beautifully together, if they are productive, determined, disciplined and if Musk has a tight inner circle maximizing the productivity of his every working hour, there are still only so many hours in a week.  As head of car design for Tesla Motors and head of engineering for SpaceX while also CEO of Solar City, his plate is full. He can’t let his existing enterprises flounder to chase Hyperloop.  So he is scratching his major entrepreneurial itch by releasing the idea to the public.

Predictable reaction… so far.

On the boards at the Wall Street Journal, at TechCrunch and other sites, the early comments are running about 70-30 negative to positive.  Many grumpy cynics troll the boards and most haven’t bothered to read Musk’s 57 page Hyperloop PDF, but that doesn’t stop them from making pronouncements from on high.

The negatives are predictable, their criticism clusters around themes.  Crony capitalist.  He ripped off others.  Nothing new.  He’s trying to kill HSR, like the tea baggers.  It’ll never happen.  Go for it, but not with my money.  The positives—myself included—try to correct ignorant assumptions, falsehoods, snarky ideologies, shaky logic, etc.

The best critique to date is here.  But the author, Matt Johnson, is an HSR partisan tearing apart Musk’s conceptual plan.   Matt: It’s a concept, a white paper!   Johnson’s board is red hot—164 comments as I write—and his people run the gamut from snarky to thoughtful.  One toxic thread is whether Musk is a libertarian, and if libertarians are conservatives, therefore tea baggers who can be ignored. One commentor Nafnlau takes Johnson’s arguments apart item by item, with help from AwalkerInTheCity, Hill Dude and others.

The press, marginally more informed, likewise clusters around themes, but hasn’t made up its mind yet which way the herd of public opinion is headed, so there are conflicted headlines like, “Promise and Perils of Hyperloop,” or, “Hyperloop: Jumping on board the Elon Musk tubewagon,” or, “Wishing for Hyperloop, betting on high-speed rail.”   See here, here and here.  See especially PJ Media, here, rebutting anti-Musk bloggers. But the recent ruling against HSR radically changes the equation, so the bet changes, as we shall see in Part 3 of this series.

More thoughtful reaction… so far.

There are thoughtful analytical voices out there.  Kevin Rouse—at New York Magazine— says:

Lost in the debate about the Hyperloop’s feasibility… is the fact that Musk’s plan… is not primarily a technical proposal directed at consumers, but a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment… Musk is taking aim at the government’s monopoly on large public works projects. He’s saying to policymakers in Washington and Sacramento alike: I can do your job better than you… [emphasis added]

These do-gooders [like Musk] see their roles not as hackers of computers, but hackers of processes.  This outlook is not explicitly libertarian… but it does share with libertarianism… hostility toward the way government… works…

Another writer laments:  “Engineers who might once have gone to work at NASA are now tweaking your Facebook news feed.”  Exactly!  With the exception of Musk and a handful of other visionary founders, real, material things that create real social-economic good have given way to superfluous copy cat social-digital absurdities in the latest unhinged Silicon Valley bubble.

Rouse is correct that Musk is intentionally poking a stick in the eye of the political establishment.  But Rouse does not speculate on what might happen now that Musk has taken on CAHSRA and the Brown-Obama-Democratic-green-machine.  As I will develop in Part 3, Musk’s timing is almost supernaturally fortuitous.  The body slam CHASRA got last week from the courts clears a wide path for Hyperloop.

Enter the Redditt geek kids, the crowd, the source…

Over on the www.reddit.com boards, the geeky kids from middle school to grad school are positively boiling with excitement.  Elon Musk is an instant cult hero—if he wasn’t already one for his role as Iron Man inventor archtype.  The boards are churning.  24 hours after Musk’s Hyperloop announcement, there was already a 2014 and a 2016 CA ballot initiative being drafted, a website, a wiki and fundraising proposals.  We’re watching a slow-mo, 20 megaton, thousand-frames-per-second explosion of pure geek joy.

At the 36 hour point, there were some 2K plus comments.  At 72 hours, there were 5338 comments on one thread alone.   And there are many threads.  One geek is already cost engineering the system on paper, here.  Another site has produced 3D printed models from Musk’s drawings.  Below is an (edited) exchange between euorpean_impostor and ChickenPotDicks, for reddit flavor:

[–]european_impostor 228 points 1 day ago
Nobody has freaked out about the air cushion thing yet:

  • The air cushion nozzles will ride 0.020 to 0.050 in. (0.5 to 1.3 mm) off the surface of the tube.
  • The pod will be travelling at Mach 0.91 (800mph or 1200kmph)

Ummm, to my layman ears, that sounds highly, highly sensitive…. Those tolerances are going to be ridiculously tight.

[–]ChickenPotDicks 314 points 1 day ago
Engineer here, Musk goes into a bit more detail about the air bearings in the pdf…  When the gap height between a ski and the tube wall is reduced, the flow field in the gap exhibits a highly non-linear reaction resulting in large restoring pressures…

The point?  The discussion is critical, non-trivial, heavy on engineering.  But another thread—about ones parents hyperlooping up from SoCal to pay a visit is hilarious.  Suddenly, the kids aren’t so sure Hyperloop is a great idea.  The positively cackle as they consider the downsides… and how to game the system.  One kid is texting his parents: cant tlk now, hlooping 30 sec.  Another kid texts his gfrnd: meet me hloop exit 37, pod SF201, 1hr. Got tkts. Luvya.

The larger point?

The larger point is that Musk’s Hyperloop has an imaginative intensity that could propel it past the cynics, past the naysayers and past the entrenched bureaucracies and political-economic power systems.

The geek kids love it.  That means in the grossest terms—a market exists.  Elon Musk is an entrepreneurial genius who knew sensed the market instinctually, that’s why he threw it out to the geek public, to the crowd, to the source.

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