The Hyperloop Is About Attitude

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Some 30 years ago, Donald Fagen wrote a song called I.G.Y. about a great future then receding into the past:

"On that train all graphite and glitter," he wrote. "Undersea by rail. Ninety minutes from New York to Paris."

The conceit behind the song was that, in the past, specifically in the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, people trusted science, engineering and the people behind them to make a better world. Sputnik was launched during the I.G.Y. The Van Allen belts were discovered and plate tectonics were confirmed.

So Elon Musk's concept of a Hyperloop, an air-powered tube whisking people and cars between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 90 minutes, has a taste of science-fiction nostalgia about it, like the movie "Apollo 13."

It wouldn't go undersea, but it would have rails.

The concept is of a tube circling back-and-forth between stations, with very low air pressure, creating a low-friction suspension system that would shoot cars around like an air hockey puck, at speeds up to 700 miles per hour. Splits in the tube would allow construction of multiple stations along the way.

The loop would cost $6 billion to $10 billion to build, Musk estimates, depending on whether you want to put cars inside it. This sounds expensive, until you realize high-speed train systems are being proposed between those cities right now that cost $70 billion and more, but don't go half as fast.

Musk envisions the first Hyperloop system being built on pylons over Interstate 5, eliminating the cost of land, with solar panels on top of the loop being used to power the system.

A Hyperloop "car" would have a compressor fan and motor in front, passengers and even vehicles in the center, and a large battery in the back. The fan would suck in air from in front of it, along the tube, and each car would cost just $500,000 to build, including the interior furnishings. There would be an emergency brake and each pod would be five miles away from its neighbor.

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Musk released the design as open source because, he says, he has too much on his plate already, what with his SpaceX rockets ferrying equipment to the International Space Station and Tesla Motors ( TSLA) electric cars.

Critics are already lining up, saying that the accelerations needed to make it work would be painful for the passengers, that his cost estimates are too low, that a prototype would have to be built first, and that red tape could quickly scuttle such a project.

But Musk isn't saying he's even interested in doing it, himself. He has just put the concept out there, complete with drawings and engineering estimates. What's he trying to prove?

Maybe it's that the attitudes in Fagen's song, in the optimistic science and science-fiction of that time, wasn't a dream; and that utopia, rather than dystopia, remains possible.

The can-do scientific and engineering attitude that powers Musk's other businesses is in very short supply, and the kids who might drive those ideas forward need big dreams in which they can see themselves, if they're to fulfill their potential and that of the nation.

So even if the Hyperloop is more of a dream than a practical possibility, and even if this is mainly a PR stunt, I think it's one we should be willing to indulge.

As another dreamer, Mark Twain, wrote more than a century ago, at the end of his book, The Mysterious Stranger, Dream other dreams, and better.

At the time of publication, the author had no shares in stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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