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Why Letting Foreigners Invest in Mexico’s State-Run Energy Giant Is About More Than Oil

It was not shocking news, exactly, when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed Monday that foreign companies like ExxonMobil and Shell be able to invest in Petróleos Mexicanos, the troubled national oil company more commonly known as Pemex. Peña Nieto has been making it clear for months now that oil-sector reform is high on his agenda, and Mexican politicians have been debating overhauling Pemex for years. This week's announcement may only be the first in a series of reforms that could finally set the lumbering, outdated, corruption-plagued behemoth to rights.

And yet even though it's been clear for quite some time that an overhaul was coming, the proposed changes still managed to stir up powerful emotions among Mexicans. "We will defend our natural resource," lawmaker Benjamín Robles declared defiantly on Twitter. To understand why, it helps to look at the outsized role this single company has played in Mexico's history and national mythology.

"For Mexicans, Pemex is like the Virgin of Guadalupe - it has the magic of symbolism," one political analyst told the Washington Post on Tuesday. "It's like apple pie for Americans."" There's the Fuente de Petróleos, a granite statue in the middle of a busy intersection in Mexico City that pays tribute to Pemex and its workers, depicting them as Soviet-style, hard-muscled oil men amid drilling machinery. Historian Lorenzo Meyer has likened the day Pemex was founded to Mexico's "moon landing."

The power of Pemex over the Mexican psyche stems from the circumstances under which it was birthed: The company was formed on March 18, 1938, when then-President Lázaro Cárdenas sided with striking oil workers against foreign management, and nationalized Mexico's reserves and foreign companies' equipment. The nationalization is remembered in the country's textbooks as a seminal moment in Mexican history, and since then "generations of Mexicans have been raised on the idea that Pemex embodies national independence from foreign intervention," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Generations of Mexicans were also raised on the idea of Pemex as a quasi-secondary state: Not only did Pemex supply Mexico with social services indirectly, through the billions of dollars it paid under a tax burden typically described as "crushing," but it also supplied them directly, running schools, day cares, and hospitals for its workers. It was in part this kind of largess -- put in place during the days when the money was flowing -- that has left Pemex in such bad shape today (combined, of course, with a slew of other usual suspects: corruption, incompetence, outright theft).

Peña Nieto's bill, significant as it is, doesn't even go as far as those who would like to see Pemex fully privatized might like. Still, the notion of foreigners investing in this piece of national heritage -- Exxon, Chevron, and Shell are among the major producers that have expressed interest in Mexico's "enormous" potential -- has the power to strike a nerve. Leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed those offering Mexico's resources to foreigners "traitors," and has called for protests next month.  Whether Peña Nieto will be able to get his proposal through Mexico's legislature remains to be seen -- but rest assured his fight will be about more than just oil. 

OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images

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It's Not Just Hyperloop: The World's 5 Wackiest Transportation Projects

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk is at it again. Having already revolutionized electric cars and space exploration, the 42-year-old Musk unveiled on Monday his latest flight of fancy: a super-fast train that would whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a ridiculous 30 minutes.

Rocketing riders at 760 miles per hour, the train system, known as the Hyperloop, would use low-pressure tubes in which pod-like transporters jet forward at high speeds atop an air cushion. Musk has described the system as a cross between an air hockey table, a rail gun, and a Concorde. As if that wasn't enough, Musk also claims that it would be cheap to build. With a price tag of $6 to $10 billion, the Hyperloop would cost a fraction of California's current high-speed rail project, which aims to connect Sacramento to San Diego by 2026 and would leave the state with an estimated $68 billion bill.

If it all sounds too good to be true, that's probably because it is. Musk says that he doesn't plan to actually build the railway, and that he's releasing his design as an open-source tool. The Hyperloop now joins a storied history of pie-in-the-sky transportation projects, all of which at one point or another promised to revolutionize transportation. With an active imagination, some engineering talent, and a bloated ego, the impossible becomes a tantalizing possibility. Sometimes these projects come to fruition; other times they don't.

Meet Hyperloop's most famous predecessors.

The Space Elevator

First theorized in 1895 by the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the concept behind a space elevator is an old one. By tethering a cable to the earth's surface and attaching it to a counterweight in space, a space elevator would in theory serve as a highly efficient way of sending men and materiel into space. No more dirty, expensive rockets would be required, and space would suddenly become accessible to human beings.

By solving the energy-intensive problem of escaping the earth's atmosphere and gravitational pull, an elevator into space has the potential to revolutionize space travel and create bases from which a new era of space exploration could be launched. To get a sense of the proportions and implications of such a structure, just have a look at the image below -- a sketch by Mondolithic Studios' Kenn Brown of a potential elevator:

But the engineering challenges inherent in such a structure make a space elevator a distant possibility. For starters, it would require a cable of some 22,000 miles with sufficient tensile strength to carry enormous loads over huge distances. So far, such cables do not exist. Carbon nanotubes are thought to represent the most promising material with which to fashion such a cable. But no one knows how to make long strands of carbon nanotubes. Until then, the idea of a space elevator remains off the table.

If you want to know more about the engineering challenges of constructing a space elevator, iO9 has a handy breakdown here.

The Moon Elevator

Though an elevator linking earth and space remains a tech geek's dream, a moon elevator might actually be possible to construct. And a company called LiftPort has taken to Kickstarter to try to make it a reality. LiftPort argues that the construction of a two-kilometer-long moon elevator stretching from the lunar surface to space will facilitate cheaper transportation to the moon and allow for moon-destined cargo to make a soft landing on its surface. The entire project aims to make the moon more accessible, and LiftPort's backers claim that the engineering challenges of such a structure are manifestly surmountable. A shorter cable and smaller gravitational pulls mean currently available technologies could be used in its construction. And the structure could potentially enable up to three dozen people to visit the moon every year. LiftPort has its eyes on eventually constructing a space elevator from earth, but for now they're focused on the more modest goal of the moon elevator. "Before we can build Earth's Elevator, we'll need to build one on the Moon," Michael Laine, the company's president, writes on their Kickstarter. "It is significantly easier, and much much cheaper. Importantly - we can build it with current technology - in about eight years."

To get a sense of how that system might work, check out this video:

Self-Driving Automobiles

The dream of sitting back on the highway and letting your car do the driving for you is one that has existed as long as automobiles have been widely available to middle-class consumers. Just have a look at this dreamscape from 1974:

Drinks on the highway may be a long way off, but self-driving cars most certainly are not. Google's self-driving automobiles have made remarkable strides in recent years, and they are now being tested on California streets and highways. By all accounts, Google's retrofitted fleet of Priuses and Lexus SUVs work remarkably well, but the Silicon Valley firm isn't the only company getting in on the action. Audi and Lexus are also developing the technology to create autopiloted cars, and a cheaper version of a self-driving system may be available within the next three years.

Flying Cars

One step up on the dream scale, flying cars have populated the imaginations of science fiction writers for generations. If the image of an open highway and a full tank of gas represents the embodiment of freedom, flying cars are something else entirely, offering the tantalizing possibility of mastering the road and the sky. Consider, for example, how artist Syd Mead imagines one of these cars might look as it refuels:

Though a far cry from their sci-fi equivalent, flying cars are now surprisingly close to becoming a reality. Terrafugia, a Massachusetts-based company, plans to deliver its first batch of flying cars by 2015. It's not a particularly beautiful machine, but the company claims the cars can do about 450 miles at 115 miles per hour -- all on unleaded gas. Like the Marine Corps' much-maligned Osprey, Terrafugia's flying cars use a tilt-rotor system for vertical takeoff, and the design isn't particularly futuristic. Check out the video below of Terrafugia's latest project and consider whether you'd even want one of those things in your driveway.

Levitating Public Transport

Even if today's flying cars leave something to be desired, urban planners in Tel Aviv have a decidedly futurist vision for how to create a public transport system for their city. Officials have hired a U.S. design firm to implement a system devised by NASA and a company called skyTran that would utilize magnetically levitating pods as a public transportation system. The system would replace cars by suspending these pods along an elevated railway, with the pods providing point-to-point transportation. If it's difficult to picture this, have a look at the video below:

In theory, travelers could call up these pods using their cell phones. Stations, like the one pictured below, would provide convenient access to the pods, which are geared toward helping cut down traffic. Because the pods are powered using a magnetic levitation system, the ride should in theory be smooth and energy efficient. Whether the plan ever comes to fruition is an entirely different question.

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