The Hyperloop Pipe Dream

Cities and states are throwing money at a nonexistent mode of transportation.

A Hyperloop capsule passenger car.
A Hyperloop capsule passenger car.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT).

For American lawmakers, funding public transit often feels like small ball. Politicians prefer to dream bigger. Earlier this month, transportation agencies in the Cleveland region and in Illinois announced they would co-sponsor a $1.2 million study of a “hyperloop” connecting Cleveland to Chicago, cutting a 350-mile journey to just half an hour. It’s the fourth public study of the nonexistent transportation mode to be undertaken in the past three months.

“Ohio is defined by its history of innovation and adventure,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once canceled a $400 million Obama-era grant for high-speed rail in the state. “A hyperloop in Ohio would build upon that heritage.” In January, a bipartisan group of Rust Belt representatives wrote to President Trump to ask for $20 million in federal funding for a Hyperloop Transportation Initiative, a Department of Transportation division that would regulate and fund a travel mode with no proof of concept.

It’s hard to keep up: Last week, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission announced feasibility and environmental-impact studies for a different hyperloop route, connecting Pittsburgh and Chicago through Columbus, Ohio, to be run by a different company, Virgin Hyperloop One. The company—which fired a pod through a tube at 240 mph in December—is also studying routes in Missouri and Colorado.* Meanwhile, Elon Musk—who has obtained (contested) tunneling permission from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan—pulled a permit from the District of Columbia for a future hyperloop station.

But let’s first look at the hyperloop that Grace Gallucci, the head of the Cleveland regional planning association the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), told local radio could be running to Chicago in three to five years, and to the study of which the NOACA contributed $600,000.

The company behind it, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is one of a handful of U.S. entities that have emerged since Elon Musk first introduced the idea in 2012. In a promotional clip for the Great Lakes Hyperloop that plays like a sequel to Chrysler’s Detroit Super Bowl commercial, a gravelly voice intones that this is not a dream, as b-roll footage of factories is cut with aerial footage of what can only be construction of an oil-and-gas pipeline. “We’ve already got a prototype,” the narrator instructs.

They don’t. Andrea La Mendola, the company’s chief global operations officer and chief engineering council member, told me there is no full-scale prototype just yet. The company says it is building one now in the southern French city of Toulouse. “In terms of full-scale, all-integration, it will [be the first prototype],” he said. “We will start with 400 meters. Then we go up to 1 kilometer, and possibly 1.6 kilometers—if we add a curve at the end.”

I’m no engineer, but if the company wants to blast humans at the speed of sound for hundreds of miles across the American Midwest, maybe they should build the curve. A few of them.

La Mendola isn’t an engineer either. Before joining HTT as its chief global operating officer and a member of its chief engineering council, La Mendola was working as a filmmaker. He has a master’s degree in engineering—media and cinema engineering. It’s a well-deployed skill set: What Hyperloop Transportation Technologies lacks in nuts and bolts, it more than makes up for in Hollywood flair. The pods will be coated in “Vibranium,” a rebranded carbon fiber whose name you may recognize from Black Panther.

The company’s co-founders have similarly little experience in transportation or infrastructure. Bibop Gresta, HTT’s chairman, is an entertainer-turned-entrepreneur with a string of content and media ventures to his name. Dirk Ahlborn, the CEO and a self-described serial entrepreneur, founded JumpStartFund, a platform to crowdsource entrepreneurial projects—including this one.

It’s there, they have frequently stated, that the company’s unique advantage lies: in the more than 900 volunteers so enamored with the idea of a functional hyperloop that they deploy their time and expertise suggesting materials, building simulations, or developing marketing in exchange for stock options. A fawning Harvard Business Review case study published in 2017 cast conventionalities like “paying full-time salaries and being focused on traditional employment” as “substantial disadvantages.” The study praised HTT’s cost-saving strategy of collaborating over Google Docs and reported that the company’s more than 60,000 social media followers “contributed in various ways,” including alerting the CEO to new engineering research. In inventing and implementing a commercial transportation mode, the method is unorthodox, to put it mildly. Terri Griffith, a professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business and one of the study’s authors, told me she thought the company’s record of patents and feasibility studies provided evidence that the system was working even in the absence of a prototype.

The company claims to be worth $100 million, though that calculation relies on the valuation of volunteer contributions and products on loan from starry-eyed partner companies like Leybold, which manufactures the vacuum pumps that might one day suck the air out of a transportation tube. La Mendola says the company now employs about 40 salaried engineers, who are charged with merely reinventing the relationship between time and distance.

There is reason to think high-speed vacuum-tube transportation can work, at least on paper. (A pneumatic subway briefly opened beneath Manhattan in 1870.) A technical analysis by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland supports the hyperloop as “a faster, cheaper alternative to … short-haul aircraft.” The reinsurance firm Munich Re believes the concept is feasible and insurable in the medium term, though it also notes, “The nature of the challenge is extreme.”

Gresta and Ahlborn are more optimistic still. As early as 2016, Gresta told Wired: “We have solved all the technical issues.” But in the intervening two years, the company didn’t even begin the construction of its prototype, instead promising a real, functioning hyperloop in Quay Valley, California. For a while, HTT claimed that system would be giving rides in 2017 or 2018—in a back-of-the-napkin planned city of 75,000 in the California desert northeast of Bakersfield. The real estate project collapsed late last year; HTT never got beyond applying for a conditional use permit, according to the Fresno Bee. A collaboration with Deutsche Bahn was supposed to yield a passenger train by early 2017; nothing has come of it.

The inability to get stakes in the ground has not stopped HTT from garnering prestige and cash from deals around the world, however: In January 2017, an “exploratory agreement” for a “hyperloop” between Brno, Czech Republic, and Bratislava, Slovakia; also that month, an investment from Sheikh Falah Bin Zayed, a United Arab Emirates royal, for a route to Abu Dhabi; a March 2017 feasibility study for a hyperloop through the Indonesian jungle funded by $2.5 million from a local partner; a June agreement with South Korean institutions; a September Memorandum of Understanding for a feasibility study with an Indian regional government. Last March, HTT announced it is building its first life-size transportation pod to be unveiled in early 2018. (Slate asked HTT for comment on or updates to these timelines but has not heard back as of publication.)

Now Ohio joins that list, with the beginnings of what La Mendola called a “public-private partnership.” Separately, on the company’s Great Lakes Hyperloop website, it claims, “Even by conservative analysis the HyperloopTT system can quickly become profitable. It presents the ability to build a mass transit system that would not require government subsidies.” Presumably a $1.2 million study will further clarify this.

Whatever the technology, whatever the methods of financing, though, land-use acquisition is always one of the hardest parts of construction—it has stalled and complicated projects from high-speed rail in California to the border wall. The hyperloop was supposed to be a bargain compared with high-speed rail, but Colorado transportation officials estimated last year it could take $3 billion to build just 40 miles of tube. One option, La Mendola suggested to me, was to try to use existing rights of way, though the bends in, say, an interstate highway median are obviously not intended to be taken at 500 mph. (The folks at NASA suggest building it underwater.)

The other option, La Mendola said, is to not only construct high-speed tubular interstate transportation, but also “become almost a utility provider for the community.” Gresta outlined some of the possibilities in his 2016 conversation with Wired: pylons that double as vertical gardens, adorned with solar panels and wind turbines. “You are the farmer. I come to you and say listen: I put one pylon every 200ft on your land, OK? In exchange I give you electricity, water, and I give it to you, and you can do whatever you want and make a profit off it.”

It sounds almost too good to be true.

Correction, March 2, 2018: This post originally misstated that the Hyperloop One test pod was made of steel. It was made of carbon fiber and aluminum.

Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox.