Elon Musk’s Hyperloop has gone about as well as most of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s more ambitious ideas: it’s way behind schedule, and so far all we’ve seen are unconvincing prototypes. A recent Time article by Paris Marx contends that, when it comes to Hyperloop, this is by design, alleging that Musk proposed Hyperloop as a way to distract California lawmakers from a long-discussed high-speed rail project. The implication here — that Musk wanted to squash a public transit proposal in hopes of selling more cars — is familiar to anyone who knows American automotive history.
Marx is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation. In his Time article, he backs up his assertion with a passage from the biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, And the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance. While writing this biography, first published in 2017, Vance arranged monthly dinner interviews with Musk and visited Tesla and SpaceX headquarters numerous times. So I called Vance to try to understand what’s behind Hyperloop. Is it an elaborate effort to undermine high-speed rail? Is it yet another half-baked proposal spouted off by a guy famous for half-baked ideas? Could it be both?
In his Time article published online on August 8th, Marx lays out a well-justified skeptic’s view of Musk’s achievements and motives. The whole article is worth a read, but this is the segment that caught my eye:
Elon Musk has wielded a virtual monopoly on how we think about the future, but will his visions really deliver better lives for most people in our society? For all the tech industry’s talk of “disruption,” keeping us all trapped in cars for decades into the future by equipping them with batteries or upgraded computers doesn’t feel like much of a revolution.
A much more sustainable alternative to mass ownership of electric vehicles is to get people out of cars altogether—that entails making serious investments to create more reliable public transit networks, building out cycling infrastructure so people can safely ride a bike, and revitalizing the rail network after decades of underinvestment. But Musk has continually tried to stand in the way of such alternatives.
He has a history of floating false solutions to the drawbacks of our over-reliance on cars that stifle efforts to give people other options. The Boring Company was supposed to solve traffic, not be the Las Vegas amusement ride it is now. As I’ve written in my book, Musk admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get legislators to cancel plans for high-speed rail in California—even though he had no plans to build it.
Several years ago, Musk said that public transit was “a pain in the ass” where you were surrounded by strangers, including possible serial killers, to justify his opposition. But the futures sold to us by Musk and many others in Silicon Valley didn’t just suit their personal preferences. They were designed to meet business needs, and were the cause of just as many problems as they claimed to solve—if not more.
Marx supports the argument about Hyperloop with a link to his own tweet, which shows a screenshot of the following passage from Vance’s 2017 Musk biography (I’ve added emphasis where Marx highlighted the text):
At the time, it seemed that Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train. He didn’t actually intend to build the thing. It was more that he wanted to show people that more creative ideas were out there for things that might actually solve problems and push the state forward. With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled. Musk said as much to me [Ashlee Vance] during a series of e-mails and phone calls leading up to the announcement. “Down the road, I might fund or advise on a Hyperloop project, but right now I can’t take my eye off the ball at either SpaceX or Tesla,” he wrote.
When I spoke with Vance, who is currently a senior writer at Bloomberg, he called Marx’s conclusion “vaguely accurate but a disingenuous take on the situation.” From Vance’s point of view, Musk’s initial announcements on Hyperloop were “more of a reaction to how underwhelming California’s high-speed rail [proposal] was.”
Musk first discussed the idea of a Hyperloop-style high-speed train system in 2012; a year later, in August 2013, Musk published a white paper suggesting a design for a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route where pressurized passenger capsules would travel through a tube system operating under partial vacuum to reach speeds up to 700 mph. In our conversation, Vance described Musk’s proposal as strictly a thought experiment, something Musk had no intention of working on. “Tesla and SpaceX were at more precarious positions than they are today,” Vance told me. “He had plenty on his plate. Elon put all the ideas out there in the open domain for anyone to use.”
I pointed out to Vance why this notion — that Musk dreamed up Hyperloop as an attempt to distract from a more conventional, perhaps more realistic, rail project — seems logical. Musk has repeatedly portrayed public transit as a dangerous, distasteful hellscape, and he sells a lot of Teslas in California.
“He’s the world’s richest man, he’s used to his private planes, so maybe public transit is a little beneath him these days,” Vance said with a chuckle. “I honestly do not think that was the goal of Hyperloop at all. I think if there was a better public transport system, my impression — and I think it’s genuine — is that Elon would be all for it.”
Vance then brought up a valid point: “In all this time we’ve been talking about high-speed rail, there’s still almost none that’s built.... In that time, Elon built a worldwide electric car charging network and shifted the entire world onto electric cars.”
“To that point, though, Hyperloop is basically no further along,” I offer. “We’ve got a tunnel full of Teslas in Las Vegas basically moving at the same speed as traffic.”
“The Boring Company is one of [Musk’s] ventures that I’ve never understood, really,” Vance replied. “I totally get your point. In general, though, there’s no part of me that believes Elon was trying to kill public transport so people would stay in cars. I just don’t believe that.... Elon didn’t even need to bemoan the high-speed rail project for it to undermine itself.”
To Vance — who has spent more time with Elon Musk than most people who aren’t employed at Tesla or SpaceX, Hyperloop was a “wild-eyed thought experiment” that Musk put out in the world, that a handful of startups latched onto. “Half the physicists that looked at the white paper were like, this is just laughable,” he told me. “He kind of just threw this idea over the wall and was like, you guys go make of it what you will.... Is it on him, or is it on some of these public officials for taking it seriously?”
“If I’m a public official, and you tell me you’ve got a better, faster, cheaper option for high-speed rail, I’m inclined to believe you,” I replied. “Is the culpability with the person selling the idea, or the person buying it?”
“Elon was never really selling the Hyperloop after the announcement,” Vance said. “The tunnel stuff, I think, is much more questionable. I still don’t understand how The Boring Company digs tunnels faster or better than anybody else. Unlike SpaceX, Tesla, it’s not clear to me that there’s any major innovation in the tunneling. I just don’t understand what the breakthrough is on that one.”
“So did Elon try to sell a green project to make money? Or did he just have an idea and blurt it out,” I asked Vance.
“I’m 99.9-percent sure it’s the latter,” Vance tells me.