Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Brilliant Billionaires No. 17: Elon Musk's Pipedream, Shooting People Down Tubes

Elon Musk proposes shooting people in capsules at incredible speed down a tube from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Elon Musk's Re-imagining  ofthe Tube Train. Image source
Judging from the image, right, Musk's tube train
carries only three passengers: all lying down for lack of headroom.

The idea is not new. In fact, pneumatic tube systems were a standard feature in many department stores prior to WW2. A sales clerk placed the customer's itemized bill plus their cash in a capsule that was fired upstairs or downstairs as the case might be to the accounting office, where the bill would be checked, change made and returned via the same pneumatic system. Here's a modern version of it:

Musk's proposal is simply to scale the thing up (not much) and shoot people down evacuated tubes at hypersonic speed.

But why? In the age of telepresence via Skype, etc., who needs to be shot down a tube from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Who needs or would want to go to Los Angeles by any means? There is obviously no need, or any sensible demand for such a system, which offers travel under appalling conditions with the risk of being turned into spam should the thing hit the buffers.

The result of applying technology to travel was, until the early post-war era, generally beneficent. The Pullman car beat a horse drawn wagon or stage coach hugely, in comfort, safety and speed. Lulled by the clickety-clack of iron wheels over unwelded rails, the railway passenger could snooze, wool-gather, or quietly work the Times crossword puzzle as the countryside slid by wreathed in puffs of smoke and steam from  the work of mechanical art hauling the train.

Empire flying boat with twin decks, sleeping births, a smoking room and
3000 horse power of motive power. Image source.
The steam powered passenger liner vastly exceeded in speed, reliability, safety and comfort the sailing clipper, while in the air, Britain's Imperial Airways used double-decker Empire flying boats to carry passengers in sophisticated luxury from Southampton Water to the Cape, via Cairo, Luxor, Khartoum, Port Bell, and Victoria Falls — in a mere four and half days.

Sadly, today, travel is reverting to the vast discomforts and dangers of the distant past. If Musk has his way, railways are to be replaced by windowless drainpipes, in which passengers will travel in a recumbent posture in a capsule so small that they are unable to raise their heads, let alone use a washroom. Passenger liners have already been replaced by gigantic floating holiday camps replete with casinos, massage parlors, movie palaces, bars, nightclubs and the opportunity to eat oneself to death, while passenger aircraft are designed like Japanese subway trains to accommodate the maximum number in the minimum of comfort.

But the Russians, at least, aren't sold on the drain train. Instead, they plan on building a 70-kilometer tube track for the transport of goods, which is very sensible. In fact, moving inanimate stuff is what the pneumatic tube system was originally designed for and all it is good for.

What would be clever, though no billionaire has seen fit to do it, is devise plans for reconstruction of cities to allow people to live close to where they work, shop and find rest and recreation, thereby eliminating the need for most travel. Admittedly redeveloping urban settlements would be more expensive than building Musk’s Shotgun Shuttle. But we are in dire need of economic stimulus, and in the long run, the payoff in time and energy saved by abolishing the daily commute would be enormous.

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