Elon Musk Has No Idea How Infrastructure Projects Get Built

LOL. Photo:  Kevin Krejci
LOL. Photo: Kevin Krejci

When mere mortals build major infrastructure projects, it takes years of planning, consensus building, and compliance with all kinds of safety and environmental protections. Building something that crosses state lines? The politics are fraught, to say the least.

You may wish this process moved faster, or, if you’re Elon Musk, you can just pretend it doesn’t exist. Musk tweeted yesterday that he had received “verbal govt approval” to build an underground tunnel between New York City and Washington for his Hyperloop vacuum tube propulsion system.

Even if Musk’s company had a proven technology on its hands (it doesn’t), there is only one response to this: LOL.

Bloomberg reports that the Trump White House has had “promising conversations” with Musk, and the tweet seems to be a bid to convert that into outside investment for the Hyperloop project.

But for anyone who knows what goes into infrastructure projects, Musk is just making it harder to take him seriously. Jonathan Neely at Greater Greater Washington writes:

What sticks out about Musk’s tweet is the clear ignorance of what actually goes into building infrastructure. Getting “verbal approval” is not an actual step in the planning or construction process. Just ask anyone following the Purple Line saga: you have to do all kinds of studies and analyses, getting sign off all along the way, to ever get anywhere near putting shovels in the ground.

 The implication in Musk’s tweet is that he got this approval from someone in the Trump administration. On that front, one of the contributors on GGWash’s listserv said it best: “So … someone who clearly understands nothing about government processes or ROW acquisition gave another person who clearly understands nothing about government processes or ROW acquisition ‘verbal approval.’ So exciting.”

More recommended reading today: Systemic Failure reports anti-development NIMBYs have succeeded in keeping a portion of land by a light rail station in booming San Jose zoned for agriculture. And Tim Kovach considers how bike-share and car-share can help address Cleveland’s job access challenges.

58 thoughts on Elon Musk Has No Idea How Infrastructure Projects Get Built

  1. I’ll add that if he’s discovered the magic secret to get around NIMBY lawsuits (which he has not), he’ll do a lot better if he uses it to build trains, rather than idiotic inefficient sled gadgetry.

  2. Yes, you need a ROW. The law is that ownership of land extends “to the center of the earth” (really!).

    Your land ownership rights also used to extend upwards indefinitely into the sky, but the rights to fly above a certain height were seized by the FAA by eminent domain some decades back.

    Now you know.

    As for DC-NYC in 30 minutes… sure. Use trains. If you’re trying to carry tiny pods, you just won’t have enough capacity to matter. For some reason Musk doesn’t understand the basics of trains. It’s very odd.

  3. Certainly you can tunnel under public streets. The problem with that is, if you’re running something at high speed, you can’t make the necessary 90 degree and 45 degree sharp turns to stay under the public streets. The violent jolts would kill the passenges.

  4. The biggest problem with “Hyperloop” is the following.

    Take the same partial vacuum tube.

    Put a completely conventional high speed electric train in it. Conical wheels, steel rails.

    Voila, you have just designed a system which is higher-capacity, faster, and cheaper.


  5. At high speeds a major limit on speed is air resistance, so a vactrain isn’t a totally crazy idea. Put the HSR in a vaccum and increase its speed.

    What’s crazy is reinventing everything else. “Pods” and “sleds”? Give me a break. Put a train in it.

  6. The Texas HSR project hasn’t even started.

    The Hyperloop has capacity problems. That is absolutely definite. We know that for a fact: it is NOT too early to tell, it is quite clear to those of us who know enough.

    Those capacity problems are solvable in one, and only one, way: by making it a train, and throwing away all the silly “sled” and “pod” ideas.

    I could go into why in great detail if you were really interested. It goes back to several physics first principles:

    — for safety, vehicles which are not mechanically connected must be spaced far enough apart to stop clear of a disabled/crashed vehicle

    — individual vehicles can only be so long before they start
    swinging out too far on curves: so an individual vehicle has a
    limitation on length, and to get more length, you need to couple them (i.e. a train)

    — this requirement can be eliminated for mechanically coupled vehicles (i.e. “trains”) which can stop short of a crashed front vehicle for mechanical reasons

    — long trains of mechanically connected vehicles have a jackknifing problem due to the fact that small errors in the direction of motion accumulate as you head for the last car (this limits the length of “road trains” on highways to three trailers).

    — this jackknifing problem can be eliminated with a passive self-stabilizing system by using conical wheels on a track; the conical wheels automatically reset themselves when they start to go off track. This is a “railroad train”.

    — there is no other method of stabilization which is anywhere near as cheap

    — the spacing between trains (determined by safety standards) and the capacity of each train determines the capacity of the whole system

    — So, if you aren’t using trains with conical wheels, re you have a system which has (substantially!) less capacity than a system with trains with conical wheels.

    Is that clear enough for you?

  7. I get that you like to show what an expert you are. Once you’ve created your second or third billion dollar company, then we can talk about what an idiot Elon Musk is.

    Of course there are obstacles. If there weren’t, someone else would have already done this. In the meantime, why are you saying he shouldn’t try?

  8. Isn’t the problem that steel wheels on steel rails can’t deal with running speeds in excess of about 400 km/h? The partial vacuum certainly eliminates most of the friction and lowers your energy costs, but with steel wheels on steel rails you’re not getting much of a speed increase over today’s HSR.

    A regular size maglev train in a partial vacuum is what Musk should be designing. That has potential to replace air travel over any distance. It could also in theory reach speeds of a few thousand mph.

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