Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monorail vs Hyperloop

There's a lot of hubbub going on about Elon Musk's, uh, fanciful "hyperloop" idea coming out of California. There's a lot of fawning in the press. There are people who know things writing long missives taking down most every bit of the lack of details in the report.

In any case, I think there's another angle here. Basically, the fact that the Simpsons predicted this 20 years ago. And not only did they predict it, but there are some uncanny parallels. Of course, I refer to the Marge vs. the Monorail which first aired in 1993. Not only is it surprisingly prescient, but hilarious, too, making several best-of lists of Simpsons episodes, and being called "the best sitcom episode ever." (And it was written by the inimitable Conan O'Brien, who would go on to some other fame. You can watch via a sketchy link here.)

Basically, the premise is that serial villain and nuclear power plant owner C. Montgomery Burns is caught illegally disposing of nuclear waste, and pays the town $3 million in fines. The town then has a meeting to decide what to do with it. From here on in, I'll parallel it with the LA-San Francisco transportation corridor:

Simpsons: after several proposals and ideas, Marge leads the outcry to repair the town's main street.
California: after several fits and starts, the state passes bonding for high speed rail.

Simpsons: Huckster Lyle Lanley, after the town has approved the street idea, shows up with a plan for a monorail, leads the town in song, and the Main Street (proven transportation improvements) is replaced with a mock-up model of the monorail.
California: After the state has all but started construction on high speed rail, Elon Musk shows up with a sketch of an idea for a hyperloop, which will be faster, cheaper and better than the high speed rail.

Simpsons: The townsfolk ask Lanley questions with the following exchanges:

I hear those things are awfully loud—It glides as softly as a cloud.
Is there a chance the track could bend?—Not on your life, my Hindu friend.
What about us braindead slobs?—You'll be given cushy jobs!

California: Questions about where the system runs, its technical merits and such are not addressed.

Simpsons: Monorail runs on solar power.
California: Hyperloop runs on … solar power.

Simpsons: Lanley has sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook
California: Musk hasn't sold a hyperloop to … anyone.

It turns out that Lanley builds shoddy products, and that in the end the monorail winds up running at warp speed (slowing temporarily during a solar eclipse) before again running out of control, only stopping when Homer uses an M attached to a lasso to hook a giant doughnut (eliciting the line "Doughnuts, is there anything they can't do?").

So basically, in both cases, the citizens have a pressing transportation issue and appropriate money to fix it. In both cases, they make a choice based on proven technology only to have it upended by an unproven idea (perhaps more nefarious in the case of the Simpsons). Both systems run on solar power, but at least with the monorail there were proven (and proven bad) systems Marge could visit to disprove its worth. If the case of the hyperloop, if it somehow upends the high speed rail project and succeeds, I'll be glad, if surprised. But I'd more likely expect a monorail.

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