Regulatory System Could Crush Hyperloop Dream

Aug 13, 2013

Can you imagine going from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes? Elon Musk can. Yesterday, the co-founder of PayPal and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors released a proposal for the Hyperloop, a nearly air-less tube that would transport people and cars up and down California. BloombergBusinessweek explains how it would work:

In Musk’s vision, the Hyperloop would transport people via aluminum pods enclosed inside of steel tubes. He describes the design as looking like a shotgun with the tubes running side by side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end. These tubes would be mounted on columns 50 to 100 yards apart, and the pods inside would travel up to 800 miles per hour.

MIT professor, John Hansman, told Technology Review that while the Hyperloop concept doesn’t violate the laws of physics, there are some engineering challenges to overcome. First, the tube the pods would travel through will have to be well-sealed to maintain the low-pressures needed to reduce friction and travel at high speed. Second, the pods themselves will need enough on-board batteries to make the 382-mile trip between LA and San Francisco. These technological barriers could be hurdled if/when a prototype is built.

Musk’s team has offered the kind of innovative thinking that can bring about a truly 21st Century transportation system. Unfortunately building big infrastructure projects in America has gotten very hard. The Hyperloop could face some regulatory barriers that affect other infrastructure projects in other parts of the country.

Here are three regulatory challenges…

1. Environment

What will it entail to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), collect and process public comments, and then file a final EIS? To put this into context, the summary of the EIS for the stretch of the California High-Speed Train (HST) from Merced to Fresno is 77 pages. EIS for the entire HST will run to thousands of pages. Expect a sizable report for the Hyperloop.

2. Safety

How many federal agencies would vie to have safety oversight of the Hyperloop infrastructure and the operation of the service?  Would a new agency have to be created, or would the Federal Railroad Administration have authority? Since passengers would travel in pods through a low-pressure tube, like airplanes, oxygen would have to be supplied in the case of a pod sprung a leak and depressurized. Also, in case of a pod breaking down, other pods would have to stop without crashing. All those moving parts would have to be tested to meet regulatory muster.

3. Surviving Disasters

Being California, the Hyperloop will have to survive not only massive earthquakes but more minor tectonic shifts. Musk’s plan calls for the tube to built on adjustable dampers, but like the pods, these will have to be well-tested.

I don’t intend to throw cold water on this idea. The Hyperloop is a big, innovative idea that is classic American. It has the potential to change how we think about commuting (you could live in South of Market and work in Hollywood) and make our world smaller. I’m with Business Insider’s Henry Blodget that this project should move ahead. However, with as much creative thinking that went into the Hyperloop’s initial design, much effort should be put into streamlining the regulatory process for infrastructure projects to ensure that bold ideas like this one have a chance to become reality.

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