Hundreds of people jostle for a good view as engineers in matching t-shirts load a sleek capsule into what looks like a submarine hatch fixed to the end of a giant tube. Hundreds more have claimed seats in the bleachers, searching for a bit of shade from the Southern California sun, while Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks about witnessing a moment in history.
In an odd juxtaposition, at one end of the mile-long tube, people line up to grab tacos or pizza from a fleet of food trucks. A live band sings out disco covers. Parents entertain kids with table tennis and giant Jenga games. It’s a street carnival for techies, here to watch students from all over the world compete in one of the first tests of a technology that some believe could be the future of travel.
Without the fanfare, you might mistake the off-white steel pipe, six feet in diameter, for a sewer project waiting to be buried. You wouldn’t know it’s actually what Elon Musk, builder of electric cars and rockets, calls the hyperloop.
Half an hour after the capsule’s loaded, a vacuum pump has removed nearly all the air inside the tube. The crowds watch on video screens as the capsule shoots forward, reaches highway speeds, then slows to a stop before the track runs out.
A New Way to Move
It’s a slow start on a long road, but if realized, it the hyperloop would be a big step in the creation of a tech-driven dream world in which congestion and pollution are memories. Humans whiz around cities in electric, self-driving cars, and, if they want to go farther, hop in the tube to rocket from, say, LA to San Francisco, in a little over half an hour.
“You’ve got boats, planes, cars, trains,” says Shayan Malik, who runs Virginia Tech’s hyperloop team. He’s one of 800 students who’ve spent the last week at the SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters, testing on the track and fine-tuning their designs before the competition. “But this is the next big thing.”
Back in 2013, Musk shared his technical thoughts on how a hyperloop could work, and encouraged others to give it a go, since he was already running two companies. A handful of companies formed to make it happen, but Musk couldn’t stay away for long.
So in 2015, through SpaceX, he launched a global competition asking mainly student teams to give it a whirl. The mandate is to build a practical, safe, scalable, pod—the capsule that will passengers or cargo through the tube for their hyperjourney. The designs are judged for safety, innovation, and construction, but most really covet the prize for highest speed reached (with the caveat that the pod safely decelerates, too).
“What this was intended to do is encourage innovation in transportation technology,” Musk said on race day. “To get people to do things in a way that isn’t just a repeat of the past.”
It’s working, if judged by enthusiasm alone. “It’s great to get to design something new, something that’s not been done before,” says Julian Gomez, from Team Codex of Oral Roberts University, as he sits on the metal bleachers, watching carefully how the others teams are doing. His team is one of 27 that have made it this far, of the 124 that earned a spot in the first, design-focused, stage of the contest. After structural, electrical, and braking checks, and tests in a smaller vacuum chamber, only five teams earned the right to pop their pods into the hyperloop tube.
Building the Future
The line for the ice cream truck is growing as the California sun beats down. Pumping the air out the giant tube takes 30 to 40 minutes (Musk claims it’s the second biggest vacuum chamber in the world, after CERN’s large hadron collider). Add the time it takes to load and unload each pod, particularly those whose momentum peters out halfway along the tube, and the schedule for the afternoon is slowly slipping. Even the runs themselves are somewhat anticlimactic, because all the action is sealed into a tube. Large monitors showing multiple camera angles give the spectators a chance to see what’s happening. The edges of the crowd start to thin.
The teams spend their down time showcasing their pods, lodged under a row of white tents. The rules are broad, to allow for maximum flexibility of design. MIT’s team won that first, design-focused round of the competition with a red and white pod that looks like an eight-foot-long bullet train. The first team in the tube, they hit 55 mph.
The Dutch team from Delft University of Technology built a green, black, and white pill-shaped capsule, with a levitation, stabilization, and braking system that uses powerful permanent magnets. Their design clinched enough points throughout the week of tests to win the overall highest score prize. Japan’s Keio University’s team built a micropod that would fit in their luggage.
But long after the sun had set, the 3D-printed trophy for fastest speed, bearing Musk’s signature, went to Warr Hyperloop, from the Technical University of Munich. The German pod resembles a jet engine wrapped in carbon fiber, with a giant fan that draws in any residual air in the tube at the front, and pushes it out the back. “We had our amazing compressor—that thing does its job!” said team lead Mariana Avezum, through happy tears, explaining how her team won. She clasped the award, a slice-through view of a hyperloop tube in a perspex box, to her chest.
The Warr pod’s 60 mph top speed is a long way from the promised 700 mph, but these are early days. This is the first demonstration of this technology at scale, and it will require extensive refinement and improvement.
The next phase is Competition Weekend II, later this summer. Teams will come back to the SpaceX test track, with some solid experience under their belts, and some solid refinements to their designs, hopefully ready to set some speed records, and continue their, and Elon Musk’s vision to change the transportation world.
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