On August 12, entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled a paper describing the Hyperloop, a concept high-speed transport technology. As he’s too busy at SpaceX and Tesla, Musk hopes someone else will make the proposed designs detailed in his 57-page-long technical paper a reality.
While Musk’s plans may never materialize, his choice to publish it as an open-design project is an empowering one. It has sparked a lively debate about the state of travel, municipal law and next-generation technology in the United States, while also inviting others to drive the kind of ambitious innovation Musk is known for.
Musk decided not to build another startup because, as he explains, “I still have to run SpaceX and Tesla, and it’s fucking hard.” Although he will not build it, he “might fund or advise on a Hyperloop project” in the future. Musk believes that his plans – which he wrote along with a group of Tesla and SpaceX engineers – certainly have flaws, but that professional collaboration can solve those problems.
Many have tried to implement vacuum-tube travel for high-speed transit, but because it is difficult to maintain a hard vacuum in a large container, none have reached fruition. The Hyperloop concept differs by using low-pressure tubes coupled with magnetic inductive motors.
Musk claims his concept offers a cost-effective compromise that can take people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half hour. He says it would cost $6 billion and can be completed within 10 years, less than a tenth of the cost and half of the time slated for California’s high-speed rail project. To add insult to injury, he believes the Hyperloop could be self-powering with solar panels and have less of an environmental impact since it’s built on pylons.
Musk, 42, is no stranger to making science fiction a reality. After making his fortune by co-founding PayPal, the iconic online payments company, he built Tesla Motors into a profitable electric car brand faster than most car companies could settle on a design for a single model.
With SpaceX, he proved that private companies could drive space exploration; and he serves as the chairman for Solar City, a company driven to produce an entire electric grid driven by photovoltaics. Driven by Musk’s fame, the Hyperloop has attracted hype and thorough media coverage.
While some are optimistic for the future of the Hyperloop, many others are skeptical. On popular question-answer site Quora, for instance, several civil engineers and railroad experts claim that the legal difficulties of acquiring land coupled with predictable clashes with environmental regulations alone are enough to preclude the Hyperloop from becoming a reality in the near future.
Others doubt that it is feasible to support the Hyperloop’s tube structures on pylons with the level of precision necessary for comfortable transit at 700 mph while simultaneously handling mechanical variation from seismic activity and thermal expansion. In general, many speculate that Musk’s cost and time estimates are wildly inaccurate.
At the same time, WhiteClouds, a design firm in Utah, has already 3D-printed a small-scale, non-functioning prototype of the Hyperloop. Musk claims that “creating a prototype is not that expensive,” and others on Quora claim that if someone can produce a half-scale, functioning prototype of the Hyperloop, they may take Musk’s claims more seriously.
Regardless of the feasibility of the Hyperloop, Musk has successfully attracted professionals across fields to publicly debate next-generation transport. By opening the design of the project, he is inviting experts to criticize his designs while simultaneously encouraging innovators to accelerate development for new forms of mass transit.
Hyperloop is unique in that it is an open design concept, similar to Linux. Feedback is desired from the community that can help advance the Hyperloop design and bring it from concept to reality.”
The power of open-sourcing designs is well known in the software and cryptology communities. A central dogma of computer security dictates that security through obscurity—the practice of making a system secure by hiding how it works — is ineffective. Instead, the best security policies are fully disclosed to the professional community.
The computer security community adopted open-design policies rapidly because of the nature of the industry—a single security flaw could compromise the entire system—but the ideas behind open-source software have spread to industries outside of computing.
Arduino and Raspberry Pi provide cheap, open-source platforms for general-purpose microcontrollers. Music and videos online are often released under Creative Commons licences, creating the potential for remixing existing content into new art.
Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare both produce open-source educational content, and Pirate Parties—political organizations dedicated to information privacy and open sharing of knowledge—have found success throughout Europe and the developed world.
Transportation and manufacturing, however, have been largely proprietary industries in recent history, and Musk is not known for bucking that trend. Tesla’s Supercharger ports are proprietary, for instance.
While the Tesla Model S sedan supports adapters for standards-compliant charging stations, Tesla’s choice to build electric car infrastructure with proprietary technology is anticompetitive unless they decide to open-source or license Supercharger technology.
The Hyperloop, however, is an open project, creating new possibilities. If the Hyperloop is flawed but still feasible, the professional community may produce a workable design more quickly and equitably than a private team can.
If it’s unworkable, or if entrepreneurs shy away from the Hyperloop’s open-design origins, others may produce alternative (and potentially closed-source) designs that tackle the same problems.
The true power of the Hyperloop is its open roots. So long as people continue discussing the technical details of the Hyperloop, and especially if engineers contribute improvements and large-scale prototypes of it, transit may change as we know it.
Many scoff at the Hyperloop designs because Musk isn’t building it. Nonetheless, he successfully provoked serious thought about the current state of mass transit, and perhaps he may inspire others to tackle the project itself or come up with something better. Even more alluring, the Hyperloop may encourage others to consider open-sourcing world-changing technology as well. The Hyperloop may never materialize, but that broadening of the horizons is enough to win me over.