THE BLOG
08/19/2013 01:56 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

Musk's Hyperloop: Getting Past the Dog at the Gate

AP

Elon Musk's recently revealed Hyperloop, a near-Mach-speed tube transportation system, isn't a far-fetched idea: The component technologies -- magnetic levitation, linear accelerators, air bearings, low-pressure tubes -- have been around for some time, and each has been commercially successful in its own right. What Musk proposes is blending these technologies, and there are already many examples of blended transportation vehicles: hovercraft, maglev trains, electric cars, solar-powered aircraft. Not all are necessarily polished products (solar-powered aircraft remain concept test-beds, for the most part) or profitable (electric cars do not yet make up a large percentage of the auto market while engineers continue to seek more efficient batteries). But then the first Apple II, or even the Apple Macintosh, of the 1980s, with their floppy disks and take-forever data-transfer speeds, look purely Neolithic when compared with today's cornucopia of laptops and smartphones. Who knows where computing power, or transportation, will be by 2025?

Hyperloop's biggest obstacle at this nascent stage is the ever-growling Cerberus of the people's pocketbook: a dollar-sniffing watchdog with the three heads of public resistance, legislative reluctance, and administrative recalcitrance. Sneaking a good idea past this hell hound is a Heraclean task, to be sure, but it has been done. After all, we did make it to the Moon "way back when." Could the same good fortune that led to Apollo 11 imbue Hyperloop with the necessary ingredients for success: public will, legislative assurance, and leadership commitment? I'd give it a qualified yes. Hyperloopers will just have to be patient and work toward a distant goal.

Hyperloop's objective is straightforward, though not particularly original: to move people quickly from point A to point B, with as little environmental impact as possible, while paralleling heavily traveled routes inefficiently served by current transportation modes (i.e., automobiles, passenger rail, buses, and planes). Musk uses the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco as his example, suggesting that the California Hyperloop would coexist with Interstate 5 for the approximately 400-mile trip. Eastern comparables would be D.C. to Boston (I-95) or Orlando to Atlanta (I-75), while a southern route might be New Orleans to Atlanta (I-10 and I-65). None of these routes is a particularly pleasant drive; rail or bus service between them is deadly dull and long (10 to 13 hours); and air travel is, well, air travel.

The history of America's interstate highway system is instructive to a point. What is too often thought of as a 1950s Eisenhower administration's fait accompli actually had its origins several decades earlier. The political and economic wrangling that eventually underwrote the national-grade roads was pure sausage making. Earl Swift's 2011 book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways is a sobering roadmap for transportation planners of the 21st century. Elon should have a copy on his bedside table.

The public, local governments, state legislatures, governors, Congress, and the White House are barely on board today with transportation schemes serving major population centers, which favor the western and eastern big cities. Residents of Eureka, Calif., whose state and federal tax bills might include a few dollars for a tube-travel system for residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco, would justifiably find that fee a tough tab to swallow. California and federal taxpayers are already billions of dollars in hock for the Golden State's high-speed rail, due to debut in 2027. Ask Virginians who live in the Tidewater or far-southwestern and mountainous regions of the Old Dominion what they think of northern Virginia's immense appetite for highway funds, shouldered by all Virginians, and you'll get an earful of opinion.

With a Hyperloop running along the Northeast Corridor, a teacher living in Nashville might be paying for a three-hour tube trip for an executive traveling from Boston to D.C. Tennesseans are already doing that with Amtrak (which doesn't serve Nashville), and how much bang for the buck are they getting with those tax dollars? You can bet they won't be volunteering a slice of their hard-earned income for the hype of a Hyperloop.

Asking taxpayers or policy makers to fund a multi-billion-dollar high-tech tubing trip without a compelling and relatable purpose -- and a least-painful source of funding -- dooms Elon and his dream to the jaws of the Hyperloop-hungry Cerberus.