Before Captain James T. Kirk ordered Agent Sulu to place the engines of the USS Enterprise on warp speed to go boldly to regions of the universe no man had gone before, in 1951 Isaac Asimov described Gaal Dornick waiting nervously for a Jump through hyper-space to visit Hari Seldon on Trantor. Dornick waited for his first ride on “the only practical method of traveling between the stars” through “hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something or nothing, [by which] one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time,” in ways that seem to prefigure Kirk ordering Scotty to place engines on “warp speed ahead” from his comfortable console on the Enterprise. Placing engines on “warp speed” was not only adopted as a mantra by Elon Musk, but offering a promise to move the nation into warp speed on a new sense of transit, where space will be conquered in neo-imperialist fashion as a benefit of the free market, public interest be damned. “People,” Musk has pronounced publicly, “like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want,” rather than a public service network of routes, a private transit system far preferable to the vision of “cram[ming] people in the subway,” rooted in an image of the frictionless world.
Musk once was–and no doubt still is–a big fan of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951), a classic of the and he’s offered Californians the prospect of something of a hyperspace-trip along California’s Central Valley in the futuristic Hyperloop. And now the tubes Musk seems to treat as a viable route for futuristic transit, some forty-five years after the unveiling of the pioneering long-planned 3.8 mile Trans-bay Tube and 3 mile bore vehicular tunnels of BART–the Bay Area Rapid Transit system–in September, 1972, that were among the longest in the nation, the most comfortable in its cushioned seating, and the most futuristic of its time, linking the region of the Bay Area as a single unit as a potential for its future growth. Yet if the BART provided an early icon promoting the Bay Area as a hub offering access to residents across an expansive commute–
–the promise of shrinking commute times across cities seemed the main aim of Musk’s promotion of the Hyperloop. Its actual intention was to torpedo high-speed rail as an option, using social media to lobby behind the scenes in the court of “public opinion” if not to go behind the state legislature, touting an unbuilt project as a way to stack the cards against public transit.
The notion that Musk, a developer of niche battery-powered vehicles for an exclusive market, using mineral-intensive lithium and cobalt batteries, should be an advocate for rethinking public transit was immediately problematic and questionable, let alone an advocate of safe transit, as a man who has mislead the nation about the safety of its Autopilot system, boosted as the future of self-driving cars, in quite misleading ways–“All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go,” the prospective buyers of the car are assured, and even “if you don’t say anything, your car will look at your calendar and take you there as the presumed destination,” boasting of interface abilities of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Features included in Tesla cars with a boosterism worthy of its name of its adopted name. The promise of personalized transit that Musk has long rooted his vision presumes a specific notion of pleasure promising to “increase the happiness of both drivers and mass transit users” in the name of efficiency, and innovation, but rethinks the basic tenets of public transit in ways that meet the aggregate needs of individuals, not of the collective community.
Nikolai Tesla is the namesake of Musk’s company, and was uncoincidentally the false prophet or messiah of electricity. Musk must relish Tesla’s own quite relentless promotion of the bounty of limitless free electricity as well as AC current has been appropriated by Musk to assume his own direct descent from the cult of the Serbian inventor whose work is often tied to robotics, laser, radio, and even x-rays in a relentlessly hagiographic fashion that have promised to spread by association to those who buy Musk’s costly cars, and if vicariously place themselves on the vanguard of electricity-based transportation akin to how Nikolai Tesla’s patents allowed George Westinghouse to introduce the most effective and economic distribution of electric power in America by polyphase current–the most effective means for powering electrical motors–a mantle Musk has channeled in Tesla Model 3’s very own “three-stage” charging stations.
Musk’s plans for the Hyperloop seemed an expand on the promotion of plans for BART as a modern linkage of the expanding East Bay into an economic unit, the promotion of Hyperloop seemed destine to disrupt the highway system, as well, we have recently learned, render obsolete not only earlier mass transit systems but needed high-speed rail systems in California. Musk has become increasingly aware of the pleasure of creating seismic earthquakes on social media, and the hint of a Hyperloop seemed able to materialize inverted the vision of consolidating Bay Area transit systems that BART aimed to achieve in the 1970s,–
–and has been a recognizable model for the future development of integrated mass transit today, in the imagined expansion of Bay Area Rapid Transit reaching by 2050 into Marin (purple line) and Silicon Valley.
In place of such an interconnected web, the Hyperloop Musk has recently proposed is a swift, single line. Its promise of transit from San Francisco to los Angeles recalls Asimov’s classic description of a frictionless trip to Hari Seldon, as much as one across California. As much as a serious proposal, it is a promotion better understood as a byproduct of artifacts and ideas generated at Tesla motors, to recast the commute from San Francisco to Los Angeles along airtight aluminum tubes. Musk first mapped his new mode of travel along hermetically sealed pressurized tubes in ways that reflect the idealized esthetic Google Maps afford of the Golden State as a region removed from any fears of natural disaster, earthquake tremors, or flooding: the overlay of a yellow path of travel let Musk spin a fantasy of real high-speed travel out on Google Maps template, removed from the risk of earthquakes on the Hayward fault or rainy seasons that would dim its solar-powered engines. It is an innovation similar to that Mush has sold to all those ready to cough up the cash to shift into warp speed collectively, by buying a Tesla, or booking travel to other planets on Space X.
Musk has since confessed to his biographer Ashlee Vance, Patricia Marx has revealed, the alleged proposal for the Hyperloop literally on the back of a napkin was a media stunt to get California legislators to scrap their own future plans for high-speed rail in the state. Musk had never intended to actually build the imagined utopia of mass transit via pneumatic tubes, but to torpedo public plans to expand mass-transit. The voluble libertarian inventor was hardly a fan of mass transit–he deemed it but a “pain in the ass”–but offering America collectively the promise of shifting into warp speed. Although Musk plans on constructing multiple similar networks of bored holes in major cities by his Boring Company that he promises are able to carry “pods” of passengers along electric “skates” at up to 150 mph, including a hyper loop between Washington, DC and New York City, as well as a tunnel network in Los Angeles, he feels public transit in fact “sucks,” and asked “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people . . . like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer.” Indeed, the prospect of such pods promise the ideal of space-age travel that is familiar from 1950’s pulps, more than engineering books or public benefit. The promise was for us to be as hermetically sealed apart from reality as the hero of pulps of the Cold War era. Is this the vision of the future we want?
For Musk has repeatedly decried mass transit is but a distasteful immersion of one’s self among a crowd of unsavory individuals, and the individualized futuristic “pods” he proposes follow rather a technocratic vision of longtermism based in fact on the dreams of Nazi engineer Werner von Braun, a prophet of space travel, and Asimov’s Foundation series itself. The relic of the Hyperloop seems a libertarian spiking of actual plans to expand public transit, by a Neo-colonial project of exploiting “space” and the “future utopia” more tied to megalomania and the false security of oracular prediction compared by Kim Stanley Robinson dismissed as at base just a “story” with rotes not in actual engineering or transit problems, but “the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s.” The image of an antiseptic sealed barrier to prevent a bubble of oxygen for white boys colonizing Mars was a stock image of fantasy literature for many kids sporting a haircut eerily similar to Musk’s own today.
The plan was a way to entice attention to his own abilities to solve the transit problems that plague California as a state, and a vainglorious promotion of how a single company might resolve free from local community input. Robinson lambasted Musk’s hope SPACE-X could promise one-way missions to Mars at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per ticket not only as “not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further,” but self-indulgent exercises promoting travel to Mars as a single-company effort, the undermining of a state transit system with a single proposal from Silicon Valley suggested a similar Great Man idea of history, by again pedaling the myth of the futuristic fantastic visions once pedaled by Nikolai Tesla himself and his patents and his vision of a liberating future consisting in free electricity for all.
The map projects an image that obscures questions about how the cars would manage those turns at such high speeds, even as it seeks to conjure the promise of such high-speed travel. The immediate media stir around the recently tweeted prototype of the Hyperloop makes the prospect of traveling in a vacuum actually all far more concrete. Planned to run through Quay Valley, a town to be built along Highway 5, midway between LA and San Francisco, to be built with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum, who helped craft the large hadron collider at CERN in Geneva, capsules flying through vacuum tubes across the state were promised last year, and the cross between a Concorde and air hockey table may have arrived in an actual prototype tested in California over a shorter geographical stretch.
The pioneering tube of high-speed transit would suggest one of the “greenest” travel options in the state. Rather than make the drive down that expanse, or the airplane trip on which Musk may have doodled a map of the idea on a napkin, one commutes in the Hyperloop driven by a fan on its nose that sucks in pressurized air in the aluminum tube in which it is suspended, pushing air beneath and behind it like a hydrofoil, as one speeds in a vessel through the Central Valley past the many cars that travel on I-5: indeed, the proposed placement of the track of the Hyperloop beside the interstate allows its very structure to offer something of a standing advertisement for speedy velo-commuting.
Although Musk has yet to attract the investors or engineers to build the project along Highway 5 without disturbance to surrounding croplands on aluminum-encased rails on pylons, he promises that its economical construction would soon be able to shuttle seated passengers along on a cushion of air, in cars powered exclusively by fan that runs on batteries powered by solar energy that would rest on the roofs of its reinforced tubes. To be sure, the Hyperloop offers a radical updating of the sort of proposed transit solutions to link the two metropoles, including the “Sleepbus” equipped with oddly analogous pods, but promising to do the same distance overnight in old-style automotive style fueled by gasoline:
It offers evidence of his interest in thinking ahead of the curve for the benefit of the state in which he works. Musk proposed this vision primarily as an alternative to plans for implementing high-speed rail in California proposed by Governor Jerry Brown. He couched the proposal as an illustration of an illustration of his public-spirited commitments: rather than spending the 68 billion dollar price tag on rail to be completed in 2029, Musk promises a commute time from San Francisco to LA in under half an hour, if you’ll just buy his batteries and plan and follow him in the scrapping of all existing public rail systems in the US. Although the pragmatics of the proposal have all to be mapped out in further detail, his 57-page spec sheet PDF Musk manages, with the help of Google Maps, to flesh out the practicalities with an urgency that makes one wonder why no one every thought of this model for moving through space before–that seems designed primarily to hold skeptics temporarily at bay, and meet the building anticipation for Musk’s plans for a “fifth mode” of transport. It is amazing that his proposal manages to resolve so many issues, and present itself as a significantly lower-cost alternative to high-speed rail, and even makes one question how “high-speed” the quite expensive rail system would actually be.
In providing commuters with a cabin that is “specifically designed with passenger safety and comfort in mind,” Musk’s plans caters to the jet-set who probably wouldn’t even want to drive. It’s rather something of an alternative to the airplane. Musk envisions Hyperloop as the travel of the future, whose construction would be far less costly than a rail system, and directly linked to renewable solar energy. Since the Hyperloop also evidences of Musk’s commitment to the public good, it is odd that it also undermines recent attempts to create a useful means of public transit that would reduce both air pollution, gas use, and highway-crowding in California. Musk’s antagonistic presentation of the “bullet train [as] both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world” seeks to use engines created by Tesla to offer a “fifth mode” of public transit able to reach supersonic speeds driven by an electric compressor fan, charged by photovoltaic cells perched on above its path. Its DeLorean-like doors, like the “Falcon Wings” of the Tesla XTesla X, seductively open to invite passengers to hop on in for the ride . . .
The map for the route is not that different from Highway 5 itself, whose path it follows, but the conceptual mapping of travel through space is decidedly futuristic in tone, boasting traveling speed not beyond light but above 700 miles per hour, allowing something of a Jump between the two not so neighboring cities in California akin to an air hockey table on skiis, which he promised “would generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate” and whose energy could be stored in the form of compressed air itself. Told with the urgency that one might associate with the inventor Nikola Tesla himself, the basic diagram of the Hyperloop is devoid of any actual spatial placement–still waiting for its engineer to actually map.
The ‘conceptual diagram’ is wonderfully futuristic vision that has been beautifully sketched as a sleek object of a consumer’s fantasy for an aerodynamic car running on skis, more than clearly mapped as a means of transit, whose propulsion system allows it to accelerate quickly to 300 miles per hour before reaching 760 mph by a linear induction motor, making the trip last but 35 minutes:
Needless to say, the linear induction motor has already been built by Tesla motors, and the solar generators on the roof of the tube use cels from Musk’s own SolarCity company; but mapped on Google Maps to follow I-5, the route becomes a reality, and that huge stretch of Highway 5 that no one really likes to drive on is reduced to a route the Hyperloop passenger barely registerd as s/he was sucked past:
The pneumatic tube isolates commuters from the travel experience, shuttling them from LA into San Francisco in ways that seem perfectly synchronized with the excitement over the new Bay Bridge, whose own futuristic and streamlined design it seems to leave in the dust.
Granted, we do need to update the systems of public transit that are woefully underfunded and often outdated in the United States. The existing options are mapped in the below illustration, brought to us by radical cartography‘s own Bill Rankin, comparing the layouts and expanse served by systems of urban mass transit: the great majority of these mass transit systems follow a simple hub-and-spoke design of regional commutes seem diminished insects once placed beside the grandiose vision of futuristic streamlined jetting between metropoles of the sort that Musk envisions, raising some questions about the efficiency of Musk’s futuristic system.
The ways of viewing the city as a self-contained unit is not necessarily a canvass broad enough for spatial travel to accommodate urban growth.
The limited efficiency of our rail corridors, which aside from the Northeast get low scores–and are in need of massive structural updates–moreover seem retrograde when compared to the system Musk sketched.
Musk, to be fair, advocates an eventual state-wide expansion that would be a virtual state-wide redesigning of the rail system into a range of spin-off Hyperloop stations: “give me a map,” Tamburlaine said, weary of further battle, “[and] then let me see/ how much is left for me to conquer all the world”–or, in the case of Musk, all the state of California.
But Musk doesn’t offer a system of mass transit, but something more like a transit for the haves, and elite type of shuttle that can be experienced by those whose time is worth the public investment on a project that would best serve them. While he of course isn’t explicit about the audience he is addressing, it is pretty much the same as those to whom he is selling a Tesla S for a $70,000 cash payment–some of which can be recouped through electric vehicle tax incentives, and a monthly saving in energy costs–not the prospective audience, in short, as Amtrak.
And maybe–just maybe–Musk’s futuristic Hyperloop isn’t really so future-oriented after all, but more of a projection of Musk’s own fantasy, designed while scribbled on a napkin while flying from Los Angeles to Menlo Park. It is striking that the notion of a phasing in of plans for high-speed rail is a plan mapped that has been mapped by the Regional Plan Association America 2050, was premised upon the belief that rail can sustain and facilitate regional economies’ growth in crucial ways, and should be built around them in order to foster their growth.
Eventually, the Regional Plan Association envisions a Trans-National Network to connect “megaregions” sharing natural resources and ecosystems–as well as interests–by new corridors to foster their inter-related economic systems:
Musk’s plotting of a travel corridor by Google Maps software seems a quick reality, even if one that has come in for some ridicule on late-night TV, that might be mostly for folks who jet-set between two cities on the California coast. The “reality” of his Google Maps reconstruction of a state-wide system, positioned itself to replace the very cars that his company produces, but is also a pretty darn exclusive ride. To be sure, Musk invites open feedback and contributions to his design from anyone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But the devil seems, as always, to be lying in its quite murky details: plans call for “Building the energy storage element out of the same lithium ion cells available in the Tesla Model S is economical,” he assures us on page 38 of the spec sheet for the Hyperloop, using the very supercharger batteries which, he promises, “directly connected to the HVDC bus, eliminating the need for an additional DC/DC converter to connect it to the propulsion system,” provide the linear accelerator with sufficient propulsive energy to accelerate to supersonic speeds, allowing one effectively to ski from Los Angeles to Norcal, or ski back to Bakersfield. While cool as hell, the axial model of this coastal shuttle suggests few possibilities for expansion to the hinterland, or obstacles form the environment–like earthquakes. (Musk likes comparing the Hyperloop by comparing it to a cross between the Concorde and an air hockey game, a colorful simile, probably to give the concept a populist appeal; but this is an air hockey game on fixed and tracks.)
But the deeper question behind the funding of the system of Hyperloop may be the degree to which San Francisco and Los Angeles will ever come to constitute a single economy: the forecasting of a map of national megaregions suggests it may in fact not be one, and provides a picture of the megaregions it wants to link.
The scheme that Musk floated is not attentive to the clusters of economics, but incarnates the very aesthetic of the Google Map. Indeed, as a scheme of travel, it perpetuates a means by which one can move through a landscape without registering its existence, and removing space from travel, much as Google Maps isolate place from environment, in a new form of transit whose focus adopts the passenger’s perspective of space, rather than the expanse through which s/he travels, or the impact of building these rails on surrounding farmlands or their potential impact. In removing the schematic map of rail destinations from any external or material constraints by the dream of frictionless travel in an air-bearing suspension system, Musk maps an argument to channel public monies to a system which awaits its designers and engineers–or at least to plan on doing so to bolster shares of Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) to robustness on Wall Street.
Some concern about Musk’s eagerness about the project encountered has been directed to the far greater price tag it would probably involve, as well as its earthquake-safety, and skepticism about the entire question of whether “the thing would actually work.” Perhaps the deeper question is whether the state of California–and indeed the coast of that state–provides the sort of economic hub that needs to be connected. The fantasy that it does seems to grow out of the maps that so prominently convince readers’ of the reality in Musk’s elegant spec sheet.
These maps suggest yet another way maps generate ways of thinking of and considering space without reflecting on its occupation: how hard would it be, after all, to travel down the Interstate to not be confined to cars, without having the distractions of the farmland that lies between, and the smell of all those cows?