A government official reportedly gave Elon Musk the nod for a Hyperloop route from NYC to WashDC last thursday, and the media networks are lighting up… but what is the reality and is it even possible?
As a former director on the White House National Security Council and current leader of a Hyperloop development organization, I believe it is not only possible, but it represents a bold new discovery in transportation innovation that has arrived.
Further, it represents a unique inflection point in US national security because of its potential to propel our strategic advantage well beyond our peer competitors in the international threat environment and in asserting homeland security.
This concept has the science, technology, excitement, curiosity, and money to move transportation innovation like the advancement of manned-aviation from Kitty Hawk to Chuck Yeager, but is that enough?
I submit that technology is not the primary hurdle. More elusive precursors such as political will, access to key nodes such as maritime ports, and design standardization will be the most vexing challenges for developers.
For example, we have seen the reinvention of new technologies in the past decade in ways and at speeds never imagined–robotics, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence to name a few. Those are high-tech harbingers for what can happen in the high-speed transportation area.
But are the many emerging tube and Hyperloop companies across the globe willing to coordinate, collaborate, and integrate to forge the consensus and “sharing economy” necessary to reinvent transportation for the public good? Will this community of competitors–including Hyperloop One, ET3, HTT, Arrivo, HHC, SpaceX, AECOM, and TransPod–conduct themselves as market scalpers as the railroads did 200 years ago?
The rail industry provides a negative exemplar and painful lesson in the development of high-speed pod transportation in the 21st century because trains are operated in a slow, costly, and environmentally inefficient manner. And only 55% of the rail gauge is standardized globally to this day. Hyperloop must do better.
This isn’t just building new products such as the Tesla, iPhones, or Lithium Ion batteries… it is a disruptive technology that will require more than a government official giving a wealthy futurist thumbs up during a meeting inside the Beltway.
Like the interstate highway system (authorized in 1956) envisioned, designed, and constructed during the Eisenhower Administration, it will require senior empowered political leaders and commercial investors who understand this is more than transportation infrastructure and speedy trains.
The most compelling features of high-speed tube transportation are that it will transport goods and passengers to their destinations more quickly. Also, it will decongest roads, rivers, rails, and runways with a more efficient and accessible conveyance. And in the process, it will bring accelerated green safe transport to a complex interconnected supply chain–infusing a new level of resilience and growth to our fragile economy. But it’s actually more than that.
Think about the dramatic leap in transportation technology and innovation from horse and buggy to automobiles, rail, manned flight, and advancing from sailing square riggers to the era of steam-powered ships. All this took place in the 100 years between 1803 and 1903.
In the 114 years since then, we have improved those forms of transportation with design and engineering enhancements, but it is now time for a breakthrough that adds an entirely new capability to replace or complement current intermodal transportation systems.
To draw from the armed forces, consider the 1950s when the unique potential of tactical nuclear weapons made the US an unrivaled super power in a world of dangerous threats and catalyzed peace because of military and technological advantage.
Or what about 1990 and Gulf War One in the Middle East when the world watched on CNN as precision-guided conventional weapons were launched down range with previously-unachievable pinpoint accuracy? That was another technological flashpoint that conveyed significant advantage in force projection and was a strategic deterrent.
I believe Hyperloop technology can have a similar positive impact in the hands of a peaceful superpower by offering economic stability and national security advantages in the 21st century. This is accomplished by the rapid transport of goods and services which strengthens supply chain networks and complex interconnected critical infrastructure sectors that thrive on speedy conveyances and systemic resilience.
Perhaps tube transportation networks like Hyperloop represent more than an amazing advancement in transportation technology―which is greatly needed―by offering the Defense Department the newest paradigm shift that significantly advances our capabilities beyond our adversaries and provides a unique instrument of national security.
As we learned during the Cold War, peace through strength can be achieved through technological superiority. In this case, intermodal imagination is a strategic advantage because it offers the ability to move resources, people, medical supplies, and sensitive material to key locations in minutes vs hours and hours vs days; thereby sustaining local and regional economies in the face of natural or man-made disasters.
In my view, this is a major security (as well transportation) breakthrough that provides an essential paradigm shift, not unlike tactical nuclear weapons and highway systems in the 50s, and precision-guided missiles in the 90s.
This excitement in tesla-like technology can only be translated into transportation reality and economic resilience if we forge a consensus among political leaders, attract private investors, and capture the imagination of our seniors like President Trump, Secretary of Defense General Matis, and Secretary of Transportation Chao. And as I am learning it will also require the tube and Hyperloop companies to join forces and integrate designs for the good of the nation.
Dr. Egli is a former NSC director for the Bush White House, current President of Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP), and author of the book, “Strengthening Homeland Security and Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience.”