A government official reportedly gave Elon Musk the nod for a hyperloop route from New York City to Washington D.C. — with a stop in Baltimore along the way — and the media networks are lighting up over the potential for vast transportation improvements, not to mention national security implications. But is it even possible?
As a former director on the White House National Security Council and current leader of a hyperloop development organization, I believe the technology is nearly there. But developers will still be challenged by political will; access to key nodes, such as maritime ports; and design standardization.
For example, we have seen the reinvention of new technologies in the past decade in ways and at speeds never imagined — robotics, 3D printing (even food printing), autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence to name a few. They are high-tech harbingers for what can happen in the high-speed transportation area.
But whether the many emerging tube and hyperloop companies across the globe will be willing to coordinate, collaborate and integrate to forge the consensus and "sharing economy" necessary to reinvent transportation for the public good remains to be seen. This community of competitors — including Hyperloop One, Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies (ET3), Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), Arrivo, Hyperloop Holding Corporation (HHC), SpaceX, Loop Global and TransPod — could instead conduct their businesses independently as the railroads did 200 years ago.
The rail industry offers a painful lesson: Trains are operated in a slow, costly and environmentally inefficient manner, and only 55 percent of the rail gauge is standardized globally to this day. We must do better in the development of high-speed tube transportation in the 21st century. This isn't just about building new products, it is a disruptive technology that will require more than a government official giving a wealthy futurist the thumbs up during a meeting inside the Capital Beltway.
Like the interstate highway system, which was envisioned, designed and constructed during the Eisenhower administration, it will require empowered senior political leaders and commercial investors who understand this is about even more than transportation infrastructure and speedy trains.
Think about the dramatic leap in transportation technology and innovation from horse and buggy to automobiles, rail and manned flight, and advancing from sailing square riggers to the era of steam-powered ships. All this took place in the 100 years between 1803 and 1903. In the 114 years since then we have improved those forms of transportation with design and engineering enhancements, but it is now time for a major breakthrough that adds an entirely new capability.
The most compelling feature of high-speed tube transportation is its ability to transport goods and passengers to their destinations more quickly while relieving congested roads, railways, rivers, ports and runways, thereby bringing accelerated green, safe transport to a complex interconnected supply chain — infusing a new level of resilience and growth to our fragile economy. But it's actually more than that.
Tube transportation has the potential to propel U.S. strategic advantage well beyond our peer competitors in the international threat environment and in asserting homeland security. To draw from the armed forces, consider the 1950s when the unique potential of tactical nuclear weapons made the U.S. an unrivaled super power in a world of dangerous threats, and catalyzed peace because of military and technological advantage.
And consider the early 1990s when the world watched on CNN as precision-guided conventional weapons were launched down range during Gulf War in the Middle East with previously-unachievable pinpoint accuracy? That was another technological breakthrough that conveyed significant advantage in force projection and was a strategic deterrent.
Hyperloop technology can have a similar positive impact in the hands of a peaceful superpower by offering economic stability and national security advantages in the 21st century. This is accomplished by the rapid transport of goods and services, which strengthens supply chain networks, and complex interconnected critical infrastructure sectors that thrive on speedy conveyances and systemic resilience.
As we learned during the Cold War, peace through strength can be achieved through technological superiority. In this case, intermodal imagination is a strategic advantage because it offers the ability to move resources, people, medical supplies and sensitive material to key locations in minutes versus hours, and hours versus days; thereby sustaining local and regional economies in the face of natural or man-made disasters.
But the excitement in the technology can only be translated into improvements in transportation and national security if we forge a consensus among political leaders and hyperloop companies. We must join forces and integrate designs for the good of the nation.
Dane Egli (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former National Security Council director for the Bush White House, current president of Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) and author of the book, "Strengthening Homeland Security and Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience."