Four years ago, Elon Musk released a paper challenging companies and people to investigate whether the Hyperloop project could be fruitfully brought to market.
Musk begged off any such work himself, declaring that he was focused on Tesla and SpaceX and didn’t have time for anything like the effort his Hyperloop would require. Now, that seems to be changing, and probably not in ways that are going to make any of the companies doing early Hyperloop work very happy.
The concept of a Hyperloop has always been as much about the sizzle as the steak. Musk’s proposal is conceptually similar to an idea floated by the RAND Corporation in 1972. They differ in some of the particulars but, as RAND put it: ‘The general principles are relatively straightforward: Electromagnetically levitated cars in an evacuated tunnel.’ The idea of using a partial vacuum to power rail travel is nearly two hundred years old and was tested in the Victorian era.
If the Hyperloop paper had been published by most other people, it would’ve been ignored or earned itself some modest amount of media coverage. Instead, it (and Musk’s sponsoring of a student design competition in 2015) drove rounds of investment capital, prototype manufacturing, and public demonstrations, including a recent field test of a prototype track and vehicle by Hyperloop One.
Last month, Musk claimed to have received verbal approval to build a hyperloop between New York City and DC, to the general astonishment of both government regulators and the business executives backing the various Hyperloop companies Musk isn’t involved with. The problem is simple: Musk’s name carries such enormous cachet, any Hyperloop company Elon Musk isn’t part of faces an enormous perceived disadvantage compared with any Hyperloop company Musk is a part of. Here’s Bloomberg:
A person close to Musk said his plan is to build the entire thing, including the hyperloop system. Musk also holds a trademark for ‘Hyperloop’ through SpaceX, which could be used to prevent other companies from using the term, according to U.S. public records.
Initially, some of Musk’s imminent Hyperloop competitors had expressed hope that perhaps Elon might limit himself to drilling large tunnels for Hyperloop infrastructure before choosing one of them to fill it, in much the same way that the nobility of old spent decades painstakingly positioning their own families as presumptive heirs to the throne, only to hand that dreadful chore off to someone else as soon as the opportunity presented itself. (If you read that in a sarcastic tone of voice, you get a cookie).
Even with Musk onboard, the success of a Hyperloop is no sure thing, and it’s an open question whether things are stable enough at Tesla or SpaceX that he should take his eye off either, even if he can afford to do so. But regardless of what may happen, any investment or project Musk takes on personally will lead to a dramatic shift in investment capital towards his own work–and likely away from everyone else’s.