Trains in the US are slow and boring. They may have brought this country together over 100 years ago, but unless you're commuting, when we think about spanning long distances, we look to the sky. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks there's a better way: a return to the Earth and the rails. Well, actually, just one rail and a very long tube. The Hyperloop - an idea he dropped on the world back in August 2013 - is why 120 teams of college and high school students gathered at Texas A&M this weekend in a competition to build the best vehicles to ride those tubes. Here's a closer look at what they came up with.
The Hyperloop Pod competition pitted teams from all over the world against one another hoping that they would be picked to advance to the next level. The finalists will receive up to $150,000 from sponsors to build small scale versions of their pod designs and have them tested on a track being built next to the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California this summer. Only 22 design and build teams advanced.
Of those, the MIT Hyperloop team took the top spot. Team captain Philippe Kirschen thinks what got them the win was that they really focused on making something safe, scalable and feasible. They'll now return to MIT to do a final round of pre-manufacturing design and some testing. While the team formed in June, transportation has long been a passion of Kirschen. "When I was applying to university when I was 16, I wrote about working on maglev (magnetic levitation) trains. Now, six years down the line and I'm working on a maglev train," he told Engadget.
MIT's focus on making something that's relatively simple to build and scale echo's what Musk said during a surprise (but not really a surprise) cameo at the event. When asked what he would change about his original Hyperloop paper, he answered; "I would advocate starting with the simplest useful system."
He also said that SpaceX would definitely have more Hyperloop competitions, "I feel really good about this. I think the work that you guys are doing is going to blow people's minds."
This weekend's competition, while intense, was much friendlier than you'd expect. Teams split their time between manning their booths and checking out other schools' designs. They chatted with each other about proposals and technical issues. They shared ideas. They debated the merits of air bearings and magnet levitation. "I feel this is a great opportunity for collaboration. Everyone is rooting for everyone else," said Jonathan Bloom of team HyperLift from St John's high school (one of four high school teams that made it to the event).
It's collaboration for the future of transportation in a country that's clearly not keeping up with the demands of an overly taxed infrastructure. During an address to the group at the end of the first day of competition, US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx talked about the current issues facing how we get around. "We've let it slip.The American people know it. If you're stuck in traffic trying to get from one place to another, you see it," he told the group.
The short-term outlook is bleak. Even the closest thing this country has to a Hyperloop, the California high-speed railway, is already years behind schedule.
But inside Kyle Field's Hall of Champions, the future seems bright. Or at least more optimistic. Team after team enthusiastically described their designs to judges, the public and press. They provided schematics, 3D prints, VR-powered glimpses into pods, even partially working prototypes of design elements.
Teams extolled the pros and cons of their chosen levitation systems. Air bearings seem like a safe bet, but require compressors and in some instances, air tanks. Magnets - both passive and active - don't require the burden of turbines. But to get something actually levitating could require magnets larger than those that are readily available. They're also expensive. All of these technical issues and the solutions have to be solved quickly. The finalists now have to build their pods by this summer. The weekend and months leading up to it were a race against other teams while trying to create something entirely new.
But they all seemed up to the challenge. While 23 teams are guaranteed to go to the summer test-track competition in California, SpaceX announced that between three and 10 additional teams from this event could still be heading to Hawthorne.
That's good news for the passionate and incredibly impressive teams that didn't get called up onstage. Alas, though, not everyone can get the golden ticket to visit SpaceX. But, as MIT team leader Kirschen told Engadget: "Having great transportation is just great for everyone. Everyone wins if you have good transportation."
This article by Roberto Baldwin originally ran on Engadget, the definitive guide to this connected life.