Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is a Political Manifesto, Not Just a Tech Trick

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Photo: Getty

It's been a day since Elon Musk revealed his grand plans for a so-called Hyperloop, a flashy high-speed transportation system that feels pulled from a Robert Heinlein novel, and nobody quite knows what to make of it. PandoDaily's Hamish McKenzie says Hyperloop is proof that Musk has supplanted Steve Jobs as the tech world's biggest visionary. Sam Biddle at Valleywag says it's an expression of a "very rich man's wild imagination." Pundits and professors are weighing in on whether the proposed technology — essentially, it's a scheme to shoot aluminum passenger pods through giant vacuum tubes at 800 mph — would actually work.

Lost in the debate about the Hyperloop's feasibility, or lack thereof, is the fact that Musk's plan — which he's admitted may never materialize — is not primarily a technical proposal directed at consumers, but a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment. By proposing a new way to provide mass transportation that is both cheaper and faster than anything approved by state authorities, Musk is taking aim at the government's monopoly on large public works projects. He's saying to policymakers in Washington and Sacramento alike: I can do your job better than you.

To understand Hyperloop properly, you have to know that Elon Musk is the pack leader of a group of tech-world elites who are committed to solving major societal problems — the bigger the better. Transportation. Medicine. Education. All of these high-minded thought realms, and more, have been swarmed by Musk manqués trying to be the Tesla of tuberculosis, the SpaceX of middle school. These do-gooders see their roles not as hackers of computers, but hackers of processes. After all: Silicon Valley makes better and faster hardware every day. Why can't it also make a better government?

This is no doubt a more laudable approach to technological innovation than, say, building a FitBit for dogs. But it has its own costs. While many gadget entrepreneurs can innovate in a private-sector vacuum — conceiving, funding, and building their companies in the ideological comfort of Silicon Valley, then launching directly to the market — tech types wanting to change processes have to be willing to dirty themselves with the work of public-sector bureaucracy.

That's frustrating work. And doing it often produces a common political outlook among entrepreneurs like Musk. It's also found in people like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and venture capitalist Tim Draper (who has bankrolled both Tesla and SpaceX, and who was the subject of my print piece last week). This outlook is not explicitly libertarian — except, in cases like that of Musk's fellow PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, when it is — but it does share with libertarianism some hostility toward the way government currently works, and the speed with which it accepts change. Call it Libertarianism Lite — the view that while government may not be the source of all of humanity's problems, it certainly isn't solving them as well as it could.

"I expect [Musk] will prove, once again that the private sector (and not the government) should be handing public transportation," Draper told me yesterday after the Hyperloop announcement. "He is smart to go after inefficient government public works."

Musk has a long history of political entanglement — usually with people trying to scuttle his various big-think projects. SpaceX has been a target of regulatory concerns from the get-go, most recently from Texas legislators who opposed letting Musk build an airport for spaceships at a site near Brownsville. Tesla has also clashed with lawmakers in New York and other states who have tried to stop the company from selling electric vehicles directly to consumers. These are the kinds of obstacles no tech CEO wants to face — and yet, because of the scope and scale of Musk's ambitions, he has to climb over them.

For years, government has been a nuisance to Elon Musk. It's slowed him down. It's required him to spend his valuable time lobbying his Twitter followers for support in the New York legislature instead of building rockets. It's required him to explain his mind-bending technical innovations to grayhairs in Congress as if he were speaking to schoolchildren. Over and over, the public sector has convinced Musk that it is hopelessly lost when it comes to matters of innovation, and that anything truly revolutionary must spring from the ambitions of the private sector.

So it's not exactly a surprise that in 2008, when California's voters approved funding for a high-speed rail system, Musk rolled his eyes. As he wrote in his Hyperloop proposal, the idea of a next-generation transportation system didn't come to him as an epiphany out of thin air — it was a response to a specific political failure he saw unfolding around him:

When the California “high speed” rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL [NASA's jet propulsion laboratory] – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?

Musk proceeded to explain that while the California high-speed rail project, which is projected to cost over $60 billion once completed, promised to send passengers from L.A. to San Francisco in two hours and 38 minutes, he figured out that he could build a Hyperloop that would make the same trip in just 35 minutes and would cost only about $6 billion. He could do this using only technology that already existed, with minimal environmental or land disruption.

Now, Musk doesn't actually want to build the Hyperloop. On a conference call yesterday, he said that the project ranked "low-priority" for him compared to SpaceX and Tesla. And it's easy to see why. The bureaucratic nightmare involved in supplanting California's existing high-speed rail project with one of his own design (and securing land-use rights, political approval, and funding to make it happen) would make sending rockets to Mars look easy. Musk has many ambitions, but explaining linear accelerators to farmers in Fresno is probably not one of them.

Still, it's worth remembering the bigger, more salient point of the Hyperloop proposal: that beneath the futuristic design and sci-fi specs lies a political strategy at work. Musk wants to train normal people to look to private enterprise, not government, for the innovations that will improve their lives, and he wants them to pressure lawmakers to get out of the way of technological progress. That's a far different project than moving people from San Francisco to L.A. in half an hour, but in many ways, it's the greater challenge. Californians, after all, have voted for high-speed transport. The decision they now have to make is about who should be trusted to give it to them — their elected officials, or a 42-year-old entrepreneur with a PDF and a dream.