Design teams from all over the globe gathered near Los Angeles over the weekend for an unusual competition. The prize was a claim to nerd fame: Who can design the fastest Hyperloop pod in the world?
Hyperloop, the futuristic technology championed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, promises a half-hour trip from L.A. to San Francisco.
You could think of it as a 1-mile-long air hockey table. You build a Hyperloop pod, put it in a long, almost airless vacuum tube, float that thing on air or magnets, and then give it a push. It flies like it's on the moon -- up to 760 mph, theoretically.
Last January's SpaceX Hyperloop invitational started with 320 entrants, and whittled them down to 27 finalists. For last weekend's contest, just 24 teams competed.
In January, the main concern was figuring out if these things actually worked. But this past weekend, the judging was a little simpler to understand. It came down to one main deciding factor: speed.
A team of German students from the Technical University of Munich -- WARR Hyperloop -- came out on top, as their prototype reached a speed of 201 mph.
UC Irvine placed fifth in the world last year with its pod design. In a hangar-like engineering room at UCI, young engineers are working night and day to make their high-tech bucket of bolts -- tucked inside a sleek carbon-fiber shell -- go as fast as it can.
“It’s a 920-pound pod,” says Arwa Tizani, a graduate student and manager of UC Irvine’s Hyperloop project. "It's using air-based levitation, as opposed to most of the teams that are using magnetic levitation."
Steve Davis is head of the Hyperloop program at Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company in Hawthorne, just outside L.A. He says there’s something appealing about having a somewhat singular focus for judging this time around.
“Speed is an objective metric,” Davis says. “How fast can you go without crashing is a very objective metric and an interesting metric.”
Hyperloop is Musk’s answer to what he called “outdated technology” in plans for high-speed rail in California. Musk proposed a completely new form of transportation -- a fifth mode of transportation, along with cars, trains, boats and planes -- and then challenged academics to make it.
Celeste Bean is the graduate student heading the UC Santa Barbara effort. She says she’s in it for the monumental engineering challenges -- but at the same time, it’s kind of neat, she says, to ride the huge wave of nerdy buzz that seems to accompany all Musk science projects.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to work on something that has the same kind of cool factor that the Hyperloop does," Bean says.
Safety is one of the big challenges when designing something running at high speed through a 6-foot-diameter Hyperloop tube. It’s not just getting the pod inside it to move really fast that’s important, she says. It’s also getting the pod to stop that fast, too.
“At some point,” Bean says, “if you have lithium-ion batteries on a cart going 200 miles an hour, the line between that and a missile gets pretty blurry.”
That means carrying precious cargo, such as human passengers, is still a long way off. But this contest is one step on the road to solving all of those technical problems, Bean says.
Plus it’s a chance to see all her time and effort and thought turned into raw power and speed.
The SpaceX Hyperloop challenge in Hawthorne runs Aug. 25-27. The event won't be livestreamed but will be taped and shown at a later date.