Tesla Motor's Wonderer-in-Chief Elon Musk went on CNBC today to talk about how great his car company is doing, but what everyone really wanted to hear about was his mad genius idea to reinvent long-distance travel. All this week, Musk has talking up a radical transportation idea called the "Hyperloop," which he describes as a "cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table." It's basically an underground bullet train that, freed from pesky terrestrial concerns like weather, farm animals, and friction, would zoom people across the country in hours instead of days. Like the Segway of trains.
The best part about the Hyperloop is that, theoretically, the technology needed to build it already exists. (Superconducting electromagnets, basically.) All it would take to make it happen is, well, the will — and several boatloads of money. Musk, whose "other company" shoots things into space for money, probably believes he has both.
Sadly, the Hyperloop will never, ever happen. It's a brillant, pie-in-the-sky idea that the realities of politics and construction permits would render all but impossible. Even if the technology is perfect, we can barely build a train from Orlando-to-Tampa (using already obsolete technology), so there's no way California is going let anyone dig a five-hundred-mile-long tunnel under the San Andreas Fault. It's taken New York City a generation to break ground on its latest subway line, and will probably take another to finish it. This nation is terrible at new infrastructure and all the billionaire dreams in the world won't change that. (See also: the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, this collapsed bridge, etc.)
Not that it really matters. Like the namesake of his electric car, Musk is the stereotypical mad dreamer. He imagines all manner of wild and fantastic inventions, most of which will never come to pass. But the few that do just might change the world.
Musk still isn't a household name, but he has been everywhere lately, because that's how Musk plans it. He used his Twitter account to scheduled a series of "big" announcements about Telsa. Most of them will mean nothing to you, unless you are in the market for a $40,000-plus car that can only travel on very specific highways. But they keep Telsa and Musk in the news and make both objects of endless fascination. That makes investors happy and customers giddy.
That also gets you glowing profiles in business magazines and saucy tabloid rumors linking you to movie stars. (For the record, Musk denied today that he's dating Cameron Diaz. He didn't deny that he was "the inspiration for Iron Man genius billionaire Tony Stark," but that's probably because the non-movie version of Stark was invented eight years before Musk was born.) For those tired of the incessant hype that seems to follow Silicon Valley's richest kids around, it might all seem like a bit much.
Then again, in this case it's not wholly unearned. (Unlike more than few "It" kids.) Musk made his first millions by creating an early version of online publishing software, but then became a true mogul by building PayPal, one of the few survivors of the original dotcom boom (and selling it to eBay for a billion dollars.) Then he used that money to build Space X, the first private company to launch its own cargo ships to the International Space Station. And while he was doing that, he was creating Tesla Motors on the side, apparently solving another problem: a true electric car that's actually a great car. He's not a one-hit wonder or a guy who just got lucky with the right cellphone app at the right time. He's built real things that others haven't (or couldn't) and his dreams are about more than just striking it rich.
Unlike Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, Musk's "vision" seems to be a bit wilder than just selling a product. (Though he's pretty good at doing that, too.) He has publicly dreamt about colonizing Mars and solar powering everything, and basically saving the planet from human foolishness. The Hyperloop — which is not really his idea in the first place — is just another thread of his larger vision: Using technology to make life nicer and healthier and more amazing. It doesn't really matter if the Hyperloop never gets built. It just enough to know there's someone in the world who might make people believe, even if it's only for a moment, that it actually could be.
Inset photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr