In August 2013, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk released a 57-page white paper concept for Hyperloop — a supersonic mass transit system between high-traffic cities that lie within short distances. The founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX envisioned it to be a frictionless system where pods inside low-pressure, vacuum-sealed tubes would transport passengers and cargo at up to 760 miles an hour — approximately the speed of sound. Powered by solar energy, it would be strong enough to withstand extreme weather and earthquakes.
The entrepreneur believed that the affordable transit system, which would drastically shorten travel times (the current six-hour trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be reduced to 35 minutes), would afford harried commuters a better lifestyle. In addition to saving precious time traveling, it would also allow them to live in an area of their choice, rather than one close to the work.
While Musk made it clear that he was too busy to undertake the task of creating Hyperloop, he hoped his blueprint would inspire others. He was not disappointed! His vision spurred both entrepreneurs and students into action. In June 2015, to enable high school and university students to showcase their ideas, SpaceX announced a multi-stage Hyperloop Pod Competition.
At the initial round in early 2016, 115 finalists, selected from over 1,200 submissions from around the world, presented their ideas to a panel of experts. Thirty teams with the most promising concepts were asked to build prototypes and invited to compete at the “Hyperloop Pod Competition I” in Hawthorne, California from January 27 to 29, 2017.
The twenty-seven models (three teams were unable to meet the deadline) built primarily by university students from six countries were first put through rigorous structural tests, outdoor runs, and a vacuum chamber test. After these, only three were deemed suitable and allowed to run through the 1-mile Hyperloop test track built by SpaceX.
Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands received the highest overall score for its green and white, 14.7 feet long, prototype that housed miniature passengers, including one named Elon. Though the pod was unable to complete the track, the judges were very impressed with the team’s ability to achieve a sleek design without compromising on safety and efficiency.
Technical University of Munich’s entry, Warr Hyperloop, the only one to reach the end of the test tunnel, took home the award for the fastest run. According to team member Marianna Avezum, it was the group's decision to disable the magnets and use wheels to reduce friction that helped achieve the speed. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, which won for best design at the primary contest in 2016, went home with the award for safety and reliability.
Though successful, the pods, which only managed to reach speeds of between 56 — 58 mph, have a long way to go to achieve Musk’s desired 760 mph. SpaceX is now challenging new and returning teams to step it up at the “Hyperloop Pod Competition II.” Scheduled for this summer, it will focus purely on maximum speed.
This is not the only effort underway to bring Musk’s radical idea to fruition. Privately funded startups Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) are also trying their best to be the first to create the lightning fast transit system. On March 7, Hyperloop One unveiled “DevLoop,” a 1.8-mile long full-scale prototype track built in North Las Vegas, Nevada that will test both track and pod systems within a few months. Meanwhile, HTT is forging plans to build a network of routes in Europe, connecting Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest. Given all these efforts to make Hyperloop a reality, it’s very likely that supersonic travel is in our near future!
Resources: spacex.com digitaltrends.com, endgadget.com, dailymail.co.uk, newatlas.com