ELON MUSK IS back in the loop.
Four years after encouraging anyone and everyone to try making his crazy hyperloop idea work, the Silicon Valley titan has decided he’s not too busy to do it himself after all. You could see this coming last month, of course. That’s when Musk announced his tunneling outfit, the Boring Company, received “verbal government approval” to dig a hyperloop tunnel between New York and Washington, DC. When WIRED asked Musk via Twitter who might build the hyperloop that would fill that tunnel, he replied, “the Boring Company.”
Speculation ramped up last week when Bloomberg, citing “sources close to Musk,” reported on his plans. On Monday, a spokesperson for the Boring Company confirmed it to WIRED.
“At the Boring Company, we plan to build low-cost, fast-to-dig tunnels that will house new high-speed transportation systems,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Most will be standard pressurized tunnels with electric skates going 125+ mph. For long-distance routes in straight lines, such as NY to DC, it will make sense to use pressurized pods in a depressurized tunnel to allow speeds up to approximately 600+ mph (aka Hyperloop).”
Now, this may annoy some of the people who heeded Musk’s call to figure out the best way to fling people between cities at something approaching the speed of sound. After all, they’ve invested no small amount of time (about four years) and money (hundreds of millions of dollars) into the venture and may not want to see Musk—a man who attracts investors and media coverage like peanut butter attracts ants—competing against them.
But for the industry as a whole, and anyone who dreams of whooshing between cities at supersonic velocity, it’s very good news indeed.
“The industry can’t get built by any one company, and to have a heavyweight like Elon put his hat in the ring says a lot of good things,” says Brogan BamBrogan, who founded hyperloop company Arrivo. “It validates the market and the idea that the tech can create some real value for people.”
With all those millions in funding, more than a few government endorsements, and now Musk, the hyperloop is looking more like a real, live industry.
First, a little background. Back in August 2013, Musk released a 57-page open source white paper describing a long-distance, high-speed transportation system that would send pods full of cargo or people through a near-vacuum at 700 miles per hour. Musk called it hyperloop and posited that it could get from Los Angeles to San Francisco or from New York to Washington in about 30 minutes.
Fantastical? Perhaps. Cool? Most definitely. Musk released his idea to the universe, gratis. (“The authors encourage all members of the community to contribute to the Hyperloop design process,” Musk wrote in the paper). The design prompted a flurry of pod-focused startups that have made some real progress, including Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Transpod, and Arrivo.
Hyperloop One, the largest player, is in the final rounds of what was a 2,600-city competition to host the first hyperloop and has successfully completed some small-scale tests at its “DevLoop” in the Nevada desert. (The company declined to comment for this story.) Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has ambitious plans for Slovakia and South Korea.
Musk may not be impressed. “He said at the time [he released his white paper] that he would only seek to commercialize hyperloop if after a few years other companies were not moving quickly enough,” a Boring Company spokesperson said. “While we’re encouraged that others are making some progress, we would like to accelerate the development of this technology as fast as possible.”
In theory, Musk could snuff out his competition. He’s the kind of guy who burns all the oxygen in a room and has an impressive track record, what with Tesla and SpaceX and SolarCity. He doesn’t appear to have a financial stake in hyperloop, yet he has hosted student hyperloop competitions at SpaceX, which trademarked the word Hyperloop. “We don’t intend to stop [other companies] from using the Hyperloop name as long as they are truthful,” the Boring Company spokesperson says.
You can understand why other companies might be peeved. “You would at least have wanted Musk to say, ‘OK guys, how can we do this together?’ or ‘How can I help?’ rather than saying, ‘Hey, I’m just gonna do it. Thank you for making this known worldwide even more than it was before and showing the progress and making sure that people believe in it,’” says Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
But hyperloop companies say they aren’t too worried. “The more people involved, the more capital will flow, the more we’ll all make progress,” Ahlborn says. That line of thinking makes sense for something like a hyperloop. In normal competition—over kitchen appliances or sandwich shops—more market entrants means lower profit margins: same pie, smaller slices. But hyperloop could be different.
“Because these companies are talking about something that is sufficiently disruptive, their primary concern is execution and finding the places where they can run the experiment to prove out the technology and refine it,” says William Sahlman, who teaches entrepreneurial management at Harvard Business School. “In that regard, having a new competitor at scale has a marginal impact on the likelihood of success.”
Hyperloops may not be a zero-sum game at all. Although the first one may get the acclaim, it may not write the history. (See: Zune v. iPod.) A number of successful hyperloop companies could end up divvying up the world, much like the ride-hailing biz, with Uber dominating in some regions, China’s Didi in others, Grab in still others. (Railroads worked this way too.) “This is not something where there’s a global monopoly if you get there first,” Sahlman says.
In the US, a big name like Musk’s might end up greasing the country’s slow, complex regulatory machinery. Despite Musk’s insistence to the contrary, building major infrastructure requires spending a lot of money and hacking through a lot of bureaucracy. “If he’s going to be the tip of the spear on building the right set of regulations, that’ll help all of us,” BamBrogan says.
Everyone involved in making hyperloop a reality says that a technology that started as a team effort remains a team effort. But don’t be surprised to see a little scrapping behind the scenes.