Earlier this week, technology billionaire Elon Musk revealed his ideas for "HyperLoop," a speculative new mode of high-speed transportation that would propel car-sized compartments through low-pressure tubes (like pneumatic tubes once used to move mail through office buildings) at 1,000 km/h.

Musk says that connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles (through a proposed $20-fare, 35-minute ride) with the system would cost about $7 billion, or a tenth of the projected cost of California’s beleaguered high-speed rail system meant to connect those cities – and could be built in less than a decade.

Naturally, such a bold idea immediately attracted criticism, such as a USA Today article listing mundane reasons it won’t work like "you’d have to slow down for turns" and "the towers would have to be made safe."

Of course, others fell over themselves praising the plan, reasoning that Musk's vision is so awesome that even if it doesn't quite turn out as planned, it would still be great, anyway.

While it’s easy to get overly excited or overly skeptical about the concept, a dose of datapoints is useful:

  • If Musk hadn’t proposed it, it wouldn’t be worth attention.

Musk is a singularly successful entrepreneur, having quickly turned equally-futuristic ideas into successful businesses several times: electronic money (PayPal moves $150 billion a year), electric vehicles (Tesla is profitable and the cars, though expensive, are critically acclaimed), solar energy (SolarCity gets Lux's much-coveted "Strong Positive"), spaceflight (SpaceX, which developed a national-grade space program in seven years and makes a profit). Musk’s solid record lends credibility to an otherwise fanciful idea.

  • The system requires no exotic new materials, properties of matter, or unproven technologies.

Musk’s 57-page detailed explanation of the idea explains how the system might work using relatively off-the-shelf technologies. It acknowledges that there are many engineering problems to be solved, and offers the concept as an open-source blueprint – a starting point for something actually workable. As such, the many solid criticisms of the plan actually move it forward.

  • Musk’s announcement should be seen as political commentary wrapped in an engineering design.

The white paper opens not with a visionary problem statement, but by stating, "When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"

Like many California taxpayers, Musk is frustrated by the cost overruns, delays, and mediocre performance of the state’s high-speed rail program, and the political problem is arguably the one Musk aims to solve.