N.Y.-to-D.C. Hyperloop? Elon Musk claims verbal approval, but more work needed

Boring Company transit tunnels
Elon Musk’s vision calls for building networks of underground tunnels to get around surface street congestion. (Boring Company Illustration)

Out of the blue, tech billionaire Elon Musk reported today that he’s received verbal approval from the government to build an underground Hyperloop transit system between New York and Washington, D.C., with stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“NY-DC in 29 mins,” Musk said in a tweet:

But it’s clear that the plan isn’t fully nailed down. When one reporter asked whether Musk was trying to drum up support for the project rather than reporting a done deal, he replied, “Support would be much appreciated!” Later, he acknowledged that he hasn’t yet gotten a formal go-ahead for anything:

What’s not clear yet is who gave the verbal approval, and for exactly what. Inquiries with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the press operation for the Boring Company, Musk’s tunneling venture, haven’t yet been returned. And agencies that should be in the know seem to be in the dark:

Musk went even further, saying that the first tunnel would actually be built under Los Angeles to get around surface traffic congestion, and that the next Hyperloops would probably run from L.A. to San Francisco and between cities in Texas:

The reference to the L.A. Hyperloop seems to be another hint that the plan for a new breed of underground transit system isn’t yet fully baked. Musk has just started an experimental digging project under a parking lot next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and hasn’t yet gotten approval from local authorities to go any farther than that.

The concept that’s taking shape blends two of Musk’s passions that have been considered secondary to his day jobs as the CEO of the SpaceX rocket venture and the Tesla electric car and battery venture.

One of those passions is the Hyperloop, a network of tubes that could carry passengers and cargo at near-supersonic speeds. Musk came up with the concept in 2013 but has left the job of commercializing it to others.

The other passion is tunneling: Frustrated by L.A. traffic, Musk set up the Boring Company late last year to look into more efficient methods to dig tunnels. That’s the venture behind the SpaceX tunnel experiment, and behind the bigger initiative that Musk announced today.

When President Donald Trump came into office, Musk became an industry adviser on several White House councils, including a panel organized by the newly formed Office of American Innovation under the leadership of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Musk quit the White House councils in frustration when Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Nevertheless, some have speculated that the “verbal government approval” for a Hyperloop link between New York and Washington may have come from Kushner or others associated with the White House.

For what it’s worth, Musk was in Washington this week to speak to the International Space Station Research and Development Conference. It’s natural to imagine that Musk had other meetings with policymakers during his D.C. trip.