I’d been making cryptic remarks about a possible job offer for a month, and a week ago I tweeted when I heard the final no. I didn’t want to say where I was interviewing until after I heard back, either way; now that I have, I’d like to talk more about the process, and what I think it means for transportation criticism in general.
A few weeks after I posted that I’m transitioning to working in transit or transit writing full-time, a recruiter reached out to me. I wouldn’t have applied myself, not out of ideological opposition to working on Hyperloop, but because until that point, I imagined they wouldn’t have wanted me working there anyway. But once the recruiter emailed me, I started the interview process. It went well. The company was familiar with my criticism of the initial concept and of startups’ own attempts to build it (the last link is Hyperloop One, the one before it is a different company). We talked about the technology, about which models I’d use to evaluate it, about various ways the system could be made more convenient.
People who are familiar with the interview process in the tech industry know that it is long and laborious. There are multiple rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved. Programming jobs involve something called whiteboarding, in which the interviewer will ask the interviewee to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard. I’m not a programmer, unless one counts QBASIC as programming, so I didn’t do any whiteboarding, but the same concept of interview meant there were a lot of hard on-the-spot technical questions. (In contrast, when I interviewed at Frontier, there were hard on-the-spot questions about political and social trends.)
Where I got stuck was American immigration policy. In the US, unlike in normal countries like Canada or Singapore or France, the skilled work visa process is based on a hard cap on the number of visas (called H-1B), rather than on a minimum salary requirement or a labor market analysis to make sure there are more jobs than qualified citizens, both of which criteria are easy to meet in tech. The H-1B cap is too tight – it’s oversubscribed by a factor of about 2; earlier this decade there was political consensus in the US elite that it needed to be lifted, but partisan politicking prevented this from happening. By mid-decade, even before Trump, the consensus frayed, thanks in no small part to anti-immigration reform conservatives, especially Reihan Salam (and, within the urbanist sphere, Aaron Renn). Academia and nonprofit research organizations, such as Frontier (or TransitCenter, or RPA), are exempt from the cap. Tech firms aren’t. This imposes a queue for getting a visa; HR at Hyperloop One said it would be a year, I think it would’ve been a year and a half. It took about a month to figure out whether Hyperloop One could work with me as a remote outside contractor, and when they realized they couldn’t, they had to tell me they couldn’t hire me.
My impressions of Hyperloop’s current status
Elon Musk’s original writeup was a scribble. Very little about it was salvageable. Hyperloop One is more serious. I believe that the most quotable criticism I made of the project in 2013 – the “barf ride” line – is being solved. As I said in 2013, I believe it is not too hard to solve the basic problem of curve radii; the problem is that it makes the civil engineering more expensive, by requiring more tunnels and more viaducts.
We didn’t discuss construction costs at the interview. I think of this as a point in the company’s favor, actually; they’d know that my understanding of construction costs is at too high a level, useful for policymakers but not for actual consultants or contractors. A few months ago, before this process started, I read somewhere that the company says Hyperloop would be 2/3 as expensive as conventional high-speed rail per km, up from Musk’s laughable 1/10 estimate. I’m skeptical about 2/3, but I’m willing to say “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “yeah, right.”
The capacity constraints coming from the narrow tube diameter are also a problem that I think the company is capable of solving; the cost of a wider tube is higher, but in far less than linear proportion to the extra capacity provided.
There remain two big classes of hitches, one technical and one economic. The technical hitches involve materials engineering that I don’t understand as well, regarding sway inside the tube, ground subsidence, and construction tolerances. I am channeling other critics here; some of them are experts in the field and I am inclined to trust them. I’ve always taken these issues as a black box for conventional HSR and even 500-600 km/h service (maglev or conventional – the TGV reached 574 km/h in an experiment with a special train with a higher power-to-weight ratio), but at higher speeds, they become more serious.
My default assumption is that it’s still solvable at 1000+ km/h, but requires more delicate engineering, which may drive up construction costs even further. Even in my initial writeup I was implicitly arguing the required delicate engineering was such that it was inappropriate to generalize from the costs of oil pipelines, rather than from those of maglev. But it’s possible that the required materials and safety engineering will lead to much higher construction costs, and it’s possible that more basic research is required before it’s viable.
The economic hitch is, what is Hyperloop for? The technology suffers from tension between two opposing forces. The first force is speed: as a very fast technology, Hyperloop is the most useful for long-distance travel. At the distance of Musk’s original Los Angeles-San Francisco idea, security theater and design compromises about station locations (Sylmar and the East Bay, originally) would eat up the entire travel time advantage over conventional HSR. At longer distance, such as New York-Chicago, Hyperloop would still win on time, just as planes beat HSR on time on corridors in the 1,000 km range today. The second force is that Hyperloop still requires linear infrastructure, so it becomes less cost-effective versus planes as the distance increases.
Hyperloop One is a consulting firm. I was asked at the interview about the technology’s applicability in multiple geographies, and gave my opinions (“this place is a good candidate, that place isn’t”). So the company can’t just up and decide on an initial segment, which should probably be a connection from New York (probably in Jersey City or Hoboken) to either South Florida or Chicago. Complicating things, such an initial segment would require many tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, which is not easy for a startup to do. There’s a real problem with using the tech startup model to develop capital-intensive infrastructure, and it’s possible such vactrain technology will always fall between the conventional HSR and airplane chairs. I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.
One of the lines I wrote in my initial post is that tech megalomaniacs believe that “people who question [the entrepreneur] and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him.” I recognize the irony in my almost-working for Hyperloop One.
And yet, I think it offers a valuable lesson about what I variously call sycophancy, or a courtier mentality. I mentioned this about the tech press in the first post; the national political press is less sycophantic (since it can be loyal to an opposition party or political faction, and can draw on the opposition for criticism of current leadership). But local political actors in areas without real political opposition can act like royal courtiers at times, unreasonably praising the leader and begging for scraps. I’ve criticized the RPA for this, for example here: Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new airport connector with negative transportation value, and while the area’s transit bloggers all said no, the RPA studied the idea seriously.
The connection with Hyperloop is that I hit the concept pretty hard, and still would’ve been hired but for the US’s broken immigration policy. I don’t know if it’s generalizable to tech. I know it is true in math academia, where if I make a serious criticism of someone’s research program, it’s quite likely we will then write a paper together. For example, my advisor formulated a conjecture he called Dynamical Manin-Mumford; two professors, Rochester’s Tom Tucker and UBC’s Dragos Ghioca, later my own postdoc advisor, found a counterexample, and wrote it up together with my advisor. Nowadays the different researchers in the field are trying to prove different weaker versions of the conjecture that might still be true.
This collaborative aspect is certainly true of transit blogging. I spend a lot of time talking about transit with my biggest critic, who argues my argument about construction costs is spurious and the US is only expensive due to inexperience; I also talk a lot to people who are more nitpickers than critics, like Threestationsquare. I’ve seen the same sentiment at a thinktank whose founder I criticized years ago, and my understanding is that the RPA too is familiar with my writings. But I don’t know if it’s true of government hiring as much – if the MTA, let alone anyone working for Cuomo, is interested in hiring a critic; but then again, MTA hiring has severe problems.
Still, I’d draw a lesson and tell people who write about transportation to be less afraid of being critical. It’s a natural fear; I have it too, when I have criticism for a blogger or Twitter user who I know or consider part of my in-group. But the only result of suppressing criticism is that people who have bad ideas keep promulgating them and either never realize they’re wrong (if they’re honest) or keep acquiring suckers (if they’re dishonest). People who are interested in better transportation recognize this and seek out the critic. Megalomaniacs who are interested in selling themselves suppress and ignore the critic. We know which side Hyperloop One is on; but where is New York’s political system?
The future of my work
I can’t legally work in the US, unless it’s for a cap-exempt institution, which means either a university (that ship sailed five months ago) or a thinktank. Canada is looking unlikely – a consultancy I applied for ended up hiring someone else they felt was more qualified, and Metrolinx isn’t going to hire me. My French is conversational, but not good enough to apply for Keolis’s planning positions here, of which they have plenty, including some I’m otherwise qualified for.
This means I’m going to do transportation writing full-time for the foreseeable future. My plan is to invest in this blog more to make it look nicer (two pieces I’ve recently sent out have decent graphics), and (almost certainly) start a Patreon account in which people who pitch in a few dollars a month can influence what I write about. My intention is to commit to a post every week, not counting personal stuff like this post. I don’t expect this to net me a lot of money, but together with freelancing income, it should be enough to live on in a developed country with universal health care.