Elon Musk's Hyperloop Could Take Trump From the White House to New York in 30 Minutes. But Can He Build It?

Trump Elon Musk
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Elon Musk (center), SpaceX and Tesla CEO, as presidential adviser Steve Bannon (left) watches, before a policy and strategy forum with executives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on February 3. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

Elon Musk's Hyperloop could be very useful for a certain someone in the White House.

The Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur claims that his planned supersonic subway could bring passengers from Washington, D.C., to New York City in 29 minutes. Currently, traveling between the two cities takes around three hours by train, or a one-hour flight.

Such an innovation could prove very useful for President Donald Trump and the first family. Since taking office, the president—a New Yorker, born and bred—has visited his home city only once, with friends estimating that his time in office constitutes the longest period Trump has spent outside the Big Apple in his entire life. On his sole visit to New York in May, the president didn't even have time to visit Trump Tower, despite Melania and the couple's youngest son, Barron, staying there until the school year ended in June.

It looked as if Musk's dream of a 760-mile-per-hour, underground vacuum-tube transportation system had taken a giant step forward on Thursday. Musk—who recently quit as a presidential business adviser —tweeted that he had received "verbal [government] approval" for The Boring Company, the tunneling wing of Musk's empire, to proceed with the project.

Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

City center to city center in each case, with up to a dozen or more entry/exit elevators in each city

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

The only problem: No one seems to know who gave Musk that verbal approval. And in any case, verbal approval does not necessarily mean a revolutionary infrastructure project is about to begin.

Without wanting to cut Musk down, the White House was cautious when asked about whether the businessman had been given the go-ahead. "We have had promising conversations to date, are committed to transformative infrastructure projects and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector," said a spokesman, according to The Washington Post.

Others were more openly dismissive. The deputy spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that "nobody in City Hall, or any of our city agencies" had been in touch with Musk about the Hyperloop proposals.

Elon, you musk be joking. Nobody in City Hall, or any of our city agencies, has heard from @elonmusk or any representatives of his company. https://t.co/3qnwvPjw7R

— Ben Sarle (@bensarle) July 20, 2017

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., appeared to back Musk with a supportive tweet, pointing out that a trip from the capital to Baltimore—a journey that is around a fifth of the distance from Washington to New York—currently takes 29 minutes.

Just to put this in perspective: if you hopped on @Amtrak Acela2128 at Union Station at 8pm, you'd arrive at Baltimore Penn Station at 829pm https://t.co/jdH4hxXZT7

— Muriel Bowser (@MurielBowser) July 20, 2017

But a spokeswoman for Bowser, LaToya Foster, clarified to The Guardian: "This is the first we heard of it. We can't wait to hear more." Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh similarly expressed that she was "excited" by the news, but her spokesman said that Musk's tweets were the first time the news had emerged.

Two hours after his announcement, Musk toned down his rhetoric, saying there was "still a lot of work" to be done to get formal approval:

Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

And a few hours after that, he urged his millions of followers to contact their local politicians with support to expedite the project:

If you want this to happen fast, please let your local & federal elected representatives know. Makes a big difference if they hear from you.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017

So, what to make of Musk's backtracking? It seems that his team and the White House have made progress on the issue. "The Boring Company has had a number of promising conversations with local, state and federal government officials," a spokesperson for the company told the BBC, adding that the company has received "verbal support from key government decision-makers" for tunneling plans that include a route from New York to Washington, D.C.

But such a major project would likely lead to extensive planning, regulation and environmental reviews and would require state level approval, not just a thumbs-up from the White House. In Musk's plan to build underground tubes, capsules levitate above magnetic tracks using air bearings, which raised concerns about the system's ability to withstand earthquakes. And the speeds and gravitational forces to which passengers would be subjected will no doubt require much attention as the project comes closer to reality.

The Boring Company spokesperson said that they expected to "secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year." And the company already has completed a first successful test of the underground electric sleds that would be used to transport cars at 125 miles per hour in Hyperloop tunnels. Other companies working on Hyperloop have predicted the first system will be in place by 2020.

All this suggests that despite Musk's optimism and signs of progress, travelers will probably not be able to hop onto a Hyperloop train before the end of Trump's first term. Sorry, Mr. President.