And that’s just for one tunnel; there would, of course, need to be at least two even in this single example, and likely many more than that to fulfill the kind of ridership numbers HTT and others envision. They could use multiple TBMs, of course, but given the sheer scale of the undertaking, it’s hard to see how one project could take anything less than decades.

These, I thought, would be sobering realizations for anyone pumped about a Hyperloop future. But few others seemed fazed by it. The Boring Company, a venture both run by Musk and Muskian in its vision, thinks it can tunnel faster and cheaper, at a rate of $1 million per mile, a figure dozens of times cheaper than industry standards, and hundreds of times cheaper than urban rail projects like New York’s Second Avenue Subway.

“Let’s pump the brakes a bit on the million dollar cost,” Mooney said at one point, before adding, “Boy, I think we’re a long ways away from a million dollars a mile.”

This 2013 photo shows one side of a tunnel boring machine (TBM) digging the Crossrail project in London. It is too large to capture in one photograph.
This 2013 photo shows one side of a tunnel boring machine (TBM) digging the Crossrail project in London. It is too large to capture in one photograph.
Photo: Getty

And that’s even before accounting for the fact that, here in the U.S., land ownership rights extend to the Earth’s core. You can’t dig a tunnel underneath someone’s property in the same way you can fly a plane over it. Either Hyperloop companies would have to buy their way underneath people’s land, use a public right of way like a highway or pipeline—which, again, would sacrifice speed—or, Swartzwelter’s preferred option, change the law so land ownership extends only to a certain depth.

No matter which course of action, it’s hard to imagine any of them being speedy.

The first time I was intellectually sparring with Swartzwelter over this tunneling issue, he made the off-hand remark that I nevertheless thought about throughout the rest of the conference.

“Space is easy. Earth is hard,” he asserted. “Nobody is suing you in space.”

Reality Check

The conference went on like this for two full days, as existential threats to the viability of the Hyperloop were casually deflected for more enthusiastic conversations like what shape should the tubes be or how will we stop riders from losing their shit—both figuratively and literally—due to their vestibular system becoming all whacky in a windowless pod shooting through a tube at 700 mph.

About midway through the second day, I realized this was not so much a conference about Hyperloops, but in people’s undying faith in technological innovation to fix the world’s problems. “We’re at the stage of trying to understand what it’s important to understand,” Cohn said during one panel, which could just as easily be rephrased to say we don’t understand very much about Hyperloops at all.

After I expressed yet another of my seemingly never-ending concerns about the viability of Hyperloops, Swartzwelter arched that eyebrow again and replied, “I am an optimist. I believe we will find answers to these questions.”

I wasn’t so sure. Sitting in the back of the conference room by the coffee table, I often felt very alone in my doubts.

The exception was HARP’s most skeptical member, Ian Sutton, a former safety engineer who now writes technical books on the subject. To round out the conference, he gave an unscheduled speech to offer what he described as a reality check.

“My perception is members of the public, until they see [a full scale working Hyperloop], they’re not going to buy into it. It’s just going to be talk,” Sutton cautioned.

This echoed a point made the previous day by Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew, who briefly dropped in, that it’s good practice to “start to show results before burdening people with construction.” It’s not helpful, she seemed to be saying, to conduct all your experiments and demonstrations in secret, as Hyperloop companies tend to do.

In one of the more grounded moments of the conference, she followed that up by touting a direct bus service CDOT launched called Bustang (I know) offering direct service from Denver’s Union Station to Boulder.

“Don’t underestimate,” she added in a remark she meant quite literally about bus drop-off points but nevertheless landed well philosophically, “the best solution is easy to get to.”

In this sense, the Hyperloop is an extremely difficult solution to get to. In his reality check, Sutton sees several major challenges facing Hyperloops, including but not limited to: safety (not just achieving it but convincing the public of it); scalability (“just because something can be done doesn’t mean it will be done”); funding, including how to deal with the inevitable cost overruns (Geddes had earlier said it would take “large amounts of institutional capital” like sovereign wealth funds to make Hyperloop a reality); timing on actually building a workable network and whether it comports with the rate of climate change; and legal challenges such as land takings.

“I think,” Sutton concluded, “an important role for HARP to play is to be a little bit cautious.”

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies co-founder Dirk Alhorn shaking hands with Putin. Did someone say large pool of institutional capital?
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies co-founder Dirk Alhorn shaking hands with Putin. Did someone say large pool of institutional capital?
Photo: AP

As much as I respected Sutton getting up in front of a room of Hyperloop enthusiasts and laying out the reasons they were not working within the confines of reality, the very idea of Hyperloop enthusiasts exercising intellectual caution seemed against the point of being a Hyperloop dreamer in the first place.

Earlier that day over lunch, Will Kerns, another employee at HTT, regaled me with his vision of how HTT will completely re-imagine the station experience. Through all kinds of futuristic ideas like full body security scans built into the tunnels as you walk to your pod, Kerns said people will have the seamless transportation experience we can barely even fathom today.

“The best thing about working for a Hyperloop company is we are inventing a whole new form of transportation,” Kerns gushed. “We can learn from the mistakes of all other modes of transportation.”

I thought back to Whitcomb’s remark that he thought the tubes should be square, not round, because “I never liked the round tubes.” Or chemist Al Whaller’s idea that the tubes should be filled not with air, but perhaps hydrogen or helium, which are less dense and therefore offer lower resistance (never mind that hydrogen is flammable and helium is very expensive).

Or Geddes’s suggestion that the tubes be built at grade so they can simply be picked up and moved to respond to demand. Or Whitcomb’s other remark that Hyperloops will enable the NFL and NBA to “go global,” one of the dozens of remarks or hypothetical benefits Hyperloops might offer that were eaten up in bite-sized chunks before never being explained or mentioned again.

What all of these ideas have in common is they are merely that. Ideas, barely vetted for any semblance of practicality, but thrown out in the world based on perceived failures of what humans have thus far invented.

To the Hyperloopist, the past is failure, reality is a mistake, and the future is success. Everything is on the table, and then taken off the table and shot through a tube, at 700 mph, caution to the wind.

“We already have this fifth form of transportation,” Whaller opined during his talk. “It’s pipelines. We just haven’t extended it to people.”

Correction: Monday, September 9, 2019, 4:15 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the Transpod presenter’s name. It is Ryan Janzen, not Jansen.

Correction: Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 4:12 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the Colorado School of Mines as the University of Colorado School of Mines.