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The Problem With Elon Musk and the Hyperloop

If you’ve seen or heard any corporate news in the last couple of days, you’ve heard that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has just announced his “plan” for an imaginary boondoggle called a Hyperloop.  I put the scare-quotes around the word “plan” here because Musk’s ridiculous proposal is clearly little more than a cocktail napkin fantasy being publicized to keep Tesla’s stock price in the rarified strata where it presently resides so undeservingly.

The Hyperloop imagined by Musk, who is invariably described as “a billionaire” as if that should-be-unspeakable status somehow renders one a technical genius in one’s chosen field of exploitation, would be a giant techno-tube shooting people from Los Angeles and San Francisco in half an hour.  Aside from the obvious question of who would be willing to risk traveling at such a velocity in constant, extremely close proximity to terrestrial solid objects, the rank silliness of the “plan” merely magnifies the three fatal flaws in all of Elon Musk’s over-hyped Rube Goldberg schemes: expense, energy use, and complexity/impracticality.

For starters, take expense.  It’s humorous to watch Musk, whose entry-level Tesla S sedan costs $69,900 and also relies on huge public subsidies and tax breaks beyond those already flowing to all car owners via street construction and foreign oil wars, assure his hapless admirers that his Hyperloop, which would require not only large numbers of extremely specialized forms of the motors used in Tesla cars but an unspecified source of solar self-power for the whole system, could be built for a mere $6 billion.  Cats everywhere ought to be laughing themselves unconscious over this assurance.  Building an L.A.-to-S.F. high-speed railway will probably cost $70 billion–if it ever gets done.  A Hyperloop will somehow come in at under one-tenth of that
dawsonconsumerprice?  You really have to marvel at the gullibility of the mainstream press here.

Even more importantly, the matter of energy use is treated with equal un-seriousness by Musk.  On this front, consider not only the substantial difficulties that plague Tesla car owners trying to make use of their purchases, but remember that “electric” vehicles are really coal, natural gas, and nuclear vehicles, given the fact that 88 percent of U.S. electricity is still made from those sources, with little prospect of serious reduction.

Musk, of course, is silent on this front, not least because selling Teslas depends on keeping targeted buyers suspended in the sponsored childish energy ignorance that underlies the whole of mainstream U.S.
transportation policy and politics.  People who understand Physics 101 aren’t going to fall for preposterous phrases such as “zero emissions vehicles” and “electric cars.”

Musk is also silent about the wild impracticalities of all his products.  Why should tourists be visiting Earth’s low orbit on a planet that has yet to get serious about either poverty or ecological sustainability?  How could 200 million drivers ever possibly recharge electric vehicles in a way that would sustain present time economies, bad as those already are?  What happens when the Hyperloop experiences its first serious malfunction?  Elon?  Elon?  [Crickets chirping…]

The fact of the matter is that Elon Musk is no innovator at all.  On the contrary, knowingly or not, he is a mere shill for the overclass’s project of perpetuating the ecocidal yet massively profitable cars-first transportation order of the United States.  Given the laws of physics and the finiteness of Earth’s resources, to sell “electric” cars is to suggest that having everybody use a 3,500-pound machine, 95 percent idle machine for everyday intra-urban locomotion could ever be environmentally and energetically sane.  That, of course, is a capitalist’s pipedream as well as a geo-physical impossibility.

To peddle Muskian diversions is also to distract attention from the nub of the matter, which is our pressing need for radical reconstruction of our towns and cities to facilitate walking, bicycling, and public transit.  What we really need — and soon — is political courage and innovation, not more capitalist-cornucopian tricks and fantasies.

Michael Dawson is the Portland, Oregon-based editor of www.deathbycar.info. He is the author of  The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life.

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Michael Dawson is the Portland, Oregon-based editor of deathbycar.

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