Transportation, Geometry, And Hyperloops

The basic problem that self-driving cars can’t solve is geometry: you simply can’t fit that many cars into certain spaces. For example, replacing D.C’s Metro with cars (or even buses) would make the Farragut Square area utterly inaccessible. David Dayen extends this to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop (boldface mine):

Have you ever tried to drive out of Dodger Stadium and waited an hour to get to the freeway? Have you ever stood in an interminably long line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland? Congratulations: You’ve had a preview of the bottleneck joys of Loop, Elon Musk’s idea for an underground “personal rapid transit” system.

Last week, Musk spent a night in Bel-Air explaining his grand PRT project to relieve the city’s traffic congestion. Instead of a mass transit system like a subway, PRT is individualized — you get in a small car and are taken directly to your destination, making no other stops along the way. In Musk’s version, an elevator would lower your personal car into the tunnel, or you could get in a Loop “pod” for 8-16 people, and be zipped underneath Los Angeles for $1 a ride. Musk theorized a trip from Dodger Stadium to LAX would take 10 minutes.

But first, you’d have to get your car into the tunnel. Musk’s design fails to solve that fundamental challenge of all PRT systems — which is why practically none have been built. Worse, Musk wants to cripple the already gridlocked above-ground network, also known as roads, in service to his subterranean fantasy…

If the Loop has too few stops, the result is an inefficient, relatively useless subway. Musk’s initial map of 60 miles of tunnels had only 23 stops and seemed to mainly be designed for his personal comfort…

If the Loop has too many stops, Musk has reinvented the slow highway, with numerous on- and off-ramps having to be accommodated. Musk seems to think he’ll solve this with tracks on multiple levels. But if more than a few cars enter or exit at a particular station at once, you’ll eventually get a snarl…

Just as a lack of volume creates traffic above ground, the same problem will happen below. The London Underground moves 5 million people per day. A Tube train can carry up to 1,200 people; Musk’s cars and pods cannot have nearly that kind of capacity. I doubt there’s enough space between the surface of any city and Earth’s core to move 5 million people and their cars daily…

This kind of boondoggle is what you get when a libertarian billionaire tries to solve a problem that requires collective action and shared rides. I don’t know if Musk finds the subway too dirty or the potential of having to interact with someone not in his social class too fraught, but his reinvention of an amusement park ride is both unworkable and unnecessary. The Jetsons was a cartoon; this version of it is just cartoonish.

Leaving aside misanthropy, surburan–which is to say, car-dependent–living is a powerful drug. It can work when you have low population densities, but not when you have high ones. If you don’t like being around people, then maybe cities just aren’t the place for you.

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2 Responses to Transportation, Geometry, And Hyperloops

  1. Greg Hargis says:

    Musk is not trying to solve a public transit problem, he’s trying to keep the venture capital coming in.

  2. sglover says:

    Predictions —
    Within three years a new genre’s going to emerge from the media froth: Tales of woe from saps who plunked down several dozens of thousands of dollars for a Tesla. There’ll be tons of stories about wacky rushed-out-the-door software updates, inexplicable changes to the car’s handling, and salary-busting repair bills.

    Within five years the genre will disappear entirely, because even admitting that you bought a Tesla will be embarrassing, like wearing a placard saying, “Yep, I’m a dope with too much money on my hands”.

    Ars Technica has an article about Musk/Tesla at least a couple of times a week. Among other interesting tidbits it seems that Tesla’s making no plans to produce replacement parts. Also, even a minor dent can total a Tesla, because replacing, say, a quarter panel might entail reinstalling and calibrating sensors. Repair bills are more than insurance companies want to cover, so — the car gets scrapped.

    If that’s not enough, toss in that Musk seems to think that the Trump approach to bad press is something to emulate. Anybody who puts their money at risk in this train wreck has it coming.

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