Elon Musk and the hyperbolic hyperloop 'announcement'

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Elon Musk said he had been given "verbal government approval" for his plan

A vacuum-sealed tunnel that can whizz passengers from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington DC has been given “verbal" approval by the US government, says Elon Musk.


Elon Musk is a man known and admired for his outlandish plans for our technological future. But even by his standards, Thursday's “announcement” (and I’m loath to call it that) was a real whopper.

Tweet one: "Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.”

Tweet two: "City center to city center in each case, with up to a dozen or more entry/exit elevators in each city.”

Tweet three: "Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly.”

When pressed for more (read: any) information on the deal, neither Tesla nor The Boring Company - a new tunnel-digging company launched by Mr Musk in late 2016 - wanted to share any added substance.

But a spokesman for The Boring Company did say that it intends to break ground on the project this year.

"The Boring Company has had a number of promising conversations with local, state and federal government officials,” the company told the BBC.

"With a few exceptions, feedback has been very positive and we have received verbal support from key government decision-makers for tunnelling plans, including a Hyperloop route from New York to Washington DC.

"We look forward to future conversations with the cities and states along this route and we expect to secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year.”

Hugely ambitious - and to be clear, the company confirmed to me it does expect to start digging before the end of 2017, not just have approval.

'Promising conversations'

We've been trying to track down whom exactly Mr Musk might have been talking to about this. I won’t keep you in suspense: we failed.

Firstly, it is not clear where this “verbal government approval” could possibly have come from, given that no government entity - even if it were the president himself - could make such an assurance given the complexity of laying out such a plan.

One suggestion was that the handshake came via the Office of American Innovation (OAI)- a new White House department run by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. He has expressed interest in the project, but when asked by the BBC on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the OAI would not confirm any “verbal approval” had been given.

She said the White House has had "promising conversations to date” with Mr Musk and was "committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector”. But that’s it.

Maybe, then, Mr Musk had been setting about getting more localised buy-in for the idea. But of the transport authorities that responded to the BBC’s requests on Thursday, none had the faintest idea what was going on.

"Were asking around to see if anyone at SEPTA knows more about this, but so far have not come up with anything,” said a spokesperson for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which covers Philadelphia, one of the cities on the planned hyperloop route.

Pennsylvania's governor Tom Wolf was also in the dark - though we're told he's keen to know more about the idea.

And in New York City: "The New York State Department of Transportation did not give verbal approval for a hyperloop,” a spokesperson told the BBC.

Suffice it to say, Mr Musk’s promise of “rapid” formal approval seems way, way off the mark. It takes a committee to move a lamppost in America, let alone a multi-tunnel transport ecosystem that would be the most ambitious infrastructure the US will have seen since it began building freeways way back in the 1930s.

There was a video doing the rounds on social media recently showing Elon Musk being interviewed by CBS in 2014. In it, he tears up as he’s told, by some of his personal heroes, that his vision for space travel is bogus. Others said his electric car business was going nowhere.

He’s made huge leaps in proving them wrong. But on this it’s hard to see how his comments can be taken as anything other than desperately premature. My hunch is that Mr Musk is simply on a sales pitch - laying the ground work, quite literally, for The Boring Company to get some major investment.

Additional reporting by Cody Godwin


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