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Innovation Stagnation? Lessons from the High-Profile Hyperloop

Is there any company remaining that doesn’t claim to practice the art of innovation?

Indeed, when we asked Lee Clark-Sellers, Innovation Officer at Ply Gem Industries, her definition of “innovation,” she responded: “I have to reflect on the first comment you said, the “Innovation, the most overused word in the business.” I just did a quick search on this yesterday and there was about 1.3 billion references online about innovation, and this morning there was 1.7 billion.”

“I’m going to do this tomorrow, and I’m just going to see how much this grows day over day. I completely agree. The term “innovation”, very very widely used. It’s interesting, we use it so much. But then the question is, ‘How much do we actually do with it?’”

Clark-Sellers is right: While many businesses talk the innovation talk, executing the walk is more challenging.

What can CEOs, Innovation Heads, and senior managers learn from others’ experiences? How can they balance the desire for excitement with the need for practicality? The Hyperloop offers a useful case study.

An Exciting Idea, but One Whose Time Has Come?

Several years ago, entrepreneur Elon Musk was making technology news headlines with plans for the Hyperloop, a sealed tube to shoot passenger-carrying pods at enormously high speeds. Part of the reason for the high level of interest the Hyperloop generated was the technology itself, a clean-energy mode of transportation capable of traveling at more than 700 miles per hour. Another part was the shaking up of a traditionally staid sector, transportation, by innovative business strategy.

The Hyperloop created enough buzz that multiple governments, both in the U.S. and abroad, become interested in its capabilities to solve its transportation problems. Feasibility studies were signed with state governments of Illinois and Ohio, for example, in the interest of eventually connecting Cleveland and Chicago with a Hyperloop run. A number of entrepreneurs, such as Virgin’s Richard Branson, also become intrigued.

So where do plans for the Hyperloop stand now?

The original idea ran into trouble initially when it became clear that right-of-way for the tunnels themselves was no easy thing to obtain. A New York City to Washington, D. C. route, for example, could pass through land owned by multiple states, private citizens, companies, and the Federal government.

Technology and Costs Are Issues

Technology and cost concerns are paramount as well. At least one early entry company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), has a prototype pod but hasn’t actually tested it on a track, despite at least two years of work. Its pod also looks much more like a high-speed rail car, according to Slate, than like the bullet-like pod of earlier, Musk-era prototypes.

Another company, Virgin Hyperloop has tested its prototype on a track. The system can go 240 miles per hour currently. That’s impressive, but far under the 700 miles per hour-plus speeds initially envisioned. Where tracks were once envisioned in multiple places, Virgin Hyperloop now thinks tracks of 200 miles is a maximum for the current iteration.

Cost is also a concern. Virgin Hyperloop management indicated to Slate that the Hyperloop system would likely have to transport 4,000-5,000 people in an hour to effectively pay for itself. In addition, they think the system will likely cost up to 70 percent of what a high-speed rail line costs, not – as Elon Musk once said – 10 percent.

That doesn’t mean the Hyperloop won’t be successful, either in the United States or in China or India, two countries that have expressed interest. However, as Slate points out, plans so far indicate it will be much closer to a high-speed rail line than a highly innovative way of moving people at amazing speeds. It may also be confined to fairly small loops, rather than a wide-ranging network.

Then again, the U.S. could use a high-speed rail system, and so could many other parts of the world. Perhaps the Hyperloop practicality will match the excitement.