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Pod racers: SpaceX’s Hyperloop competition pits concepts head-to-head

A working hyperloop system may be quite a few years off, but a competition held by Elon Musk’s SpaceX marked part of the genesis of transportation’s future.

Ever since SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk published his white paper concept on Hyperloop technology back in 2013, the idea of creating a genuine high-speed transportation solution has fueled the minds of engineers all over the world. While it’s not affiliated with any specific project, SpaceX (and Musk) still wanted to help stoke the collective excitement over Hyperloop tech by setting up a series of competitions focused on the design, manufacturing, and operation of working pods — the latest of which took place on the last weekend in January.

Simply dubbed the Hyperloop Pod Competition, Musk’s original call to arms transformed itself not just into a handful of ambitious startups, but also into an extracurricular activity for colleges, universities, high schools, and (if you could believe it) Redditors. Though it spurred the event solely to forward the advancement of Hyperloop tech, SpaceX largely stays out of the limelight — aside from the occasional words from its head honcho — and instead seeks to prop up the teams participating, and to steer all of the (deserved) media attention their way.

Musk’s transportation dilemma

What the publishing of the white paper, sponsorship of the Hyperloop Pod Competition, and his latest underground tunneling scheme underscore is that Musk has a transportation problem. That is, the current modes of transportation — be it driving on a traffic-heavy Los Angeles freeway, jetting across the country, or simply hunkering down in a less-than-speedy train — tend to be a series of bland, inefficient, time-consuming solutions to something people do every day. Like literally everyone else, Musk has reached a boiling point in regard to his patience for transit.

“If you’ve got tall buildings, they’re all 3D, and then everyone wants to go into the building and leave the building at the same time to go on a 2D road network.”

“Fundamentally, you have to go 3D in a city,” Musk said during his opening remarks. “If you’ve got tall buildings, they’re all 3D, and then everyone wants to go into the building [for work] and leave the building at the same time to go on a 2D road network. This obviously doesn’t work. So, you have to go 3D either up or down, and I think probably down. Then for longer distances, [you’ll have] things like the Hyperloop or other ideas.”

A man with many irons in the fire — SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, the Hyperloop white paper, etc. — Musk’s solutions often see themselves through to fruition, either by his doing or the collective efforts of those who agree with his vision. With the SpaceX-created Hyperloop Pod Competition, which began in January 2016 with Design Weekend at Texas A&M, Musk and his aerospace venture were able to nurture this 21st century take on high-speed travel by urging external innovation outside of previously established outfits such as Hyperloop One or Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Though the creation of such a contest won’t solve Musk’s transportation conundrum overnight, it’ll certainly help get the ball rolling.

Competition breeds innovation

The impact of SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition, a three-part effort spanning almost two full years, is a sum of its parts. That is, despite each stage’s winners and losers, the overall goal of such an ongoing event isn’t to amass Elon Musk-signed trophies, but rather to dramatically advance a solution that has every opportunity of changing the entire landscape of travel. This concept of Hyperloop as a disruption was on full display during SpaceX’s Competition Weekend I, with even Musk himself stressing the importance of innovation as it relates to the tech.

“So what this is really intended to do is encourage innovation in transport technology,” Musk pointed out. “To get people excited about new forms of transport, things that may be completely different from what we see today, but really just to get people to innovate and think about doing things in a way that’s not just a repeat of the past but to explore the boundaries of physics, and to see what is really possible. I think we’ll find it’s way more incredible than we ever realized.”

The participating teams spent the better part of the last year and a half theorizing, researching, testing, and manufacturing their entries. U.S.-based teams hail from such places as the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (among many others). The competition also showed its international spirit, most notably with high-achieving teams from the Netherlands (Delft) and Germany (Warr). For most of the teams, simply having the ability to descend on SpaceX’s campus was rewarding enough for their hard work.

“It’s really important [to be here]. We started one and a half years ago with nothing, and then we started designing,” Delft Hyperloop testing specialist Quint Houwink, told Digital Trends. “We are a team of 30 people, and we put so much time and so much effort into it that it’s become part of ourselves. Just being here is a result of one and a half years of really hard work.”

To the victor goes the modesty

Many of the teams shared Houwink’s sentiment about participating in SpaceX’s event, which created an atmosphere of humbleness throughout the weekend — even for those teams that left Los Angeles as decorated winners. To Delft’s credit, the team took home what’s considered the weekend’s top prize, the trophy for best overall score. Based on the team’s final pod design, its relative safety, and measured speed inside the mile-long testing tube, the Dutch reigned supreme. Outside of some well-deserved and joyous song and dance, the Delft University of Technology team was mostly humble and felt honored just to participate.

“We wanted it to go faster, way faster, than this.”

Delft Hyperloop wasn’t the only team celebrating come closing ceremonies, nor was it the only one taking the win in relative stride. Munich-based Warr captured the number two prize for building the fastest Hyperloop pod experiment — its entry traveled down the test track at roughly 58 miles per hour. Although the final, passenger-ready Hyperloop system hopes to run pods at around an astonishing 650 miles per hour, Warr’s accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. An unnamed SpaceX employee (none were available for official comments) said there was an expectation that the pods would have some difficulty simply moving down the track at all, let alone traveling more than 50 miles an hour.

“Many of us worked full-time on this project and [running it on the test track] finally happened,” Thomas Ruck, Warr’s braking system specialist, told Digital Trends. “It’s very nice to see all the hard work that you put into the project come together like this finally. To be honest, it even could have gone better. We wanted it to go faster, way faster, than this. We could have done about three times that speed, or even a bit more, but it’s something where we learn.”

If there was a certain work ethic Musk targeted in his initial white paper, it was exemplified by Ruck and Houwink, who seemed to echo every participant’s experience at the event. While some of it is about designing and bringing to life the best Hyperloop concept, there exists a sort of camaraderie in merely sharing an innovative stage with so many brilliant teams.

This attitude was most evident in the sheer excitement each team had for the others as the final awards were announced. Applause rung out for competition favorites such as MIT, but perhaps the largest cheer from the attending crowd was when the lone high school team — team Hyperlift from St. John’s High School in Texas — was recognized as an honorable mention winner in the category of performance and operations. It’s no small feat to have been chosen as one of the 27 teams competing during Competition Weekend I, let alone overcoming the obstacle of being a high school team challenging those from universities and colleges.

The next step

While Delft and Warr are now heading back to Europe as Competition Weekend I champions, SpaceX’s involvement in advancing innovation doesn’t end. Due in large part to the enormous amount of initial submissions, the company already has plans for a Competition Weekend II this summer. Similar in substance to the first go-round, SpaceX plans on sifting through what will likely be hundreds of interested participants in order to field the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, some teams — namely MIT, who took home the top prize at last year’s Design Weekend — will be absent from Round 2.

“It’s ultimately going to be something that inspires the world and results in real transportation technologies that help make people’s lives better.”

“This has been a longer project for all of us than we had originally intended,” Chris Merian, MIT Hyperloop’s chief engineer, explained to Digital Trends. “As it currently stands, we aren’t planning on going to Competition II. The hope is that this will go back to MIT and sit on display as another project that MIT has been able to put forward. Unfortunately, we looked for interest to continue the work but there wasn’t enough to field a full team. About half the people on the team now are graduated, so there just wasn’t enough carryover. What will likely happen is that the team will go into hibernation until someone decides to pick it up.”

Despite the absence of a stalwart like MIT, SpaceX’s next competition weekend figures to be just as fiercely innovative as the first. With teams all over the world heeding Musk’s request to literally pour their heart and soul into the future of transportation, the well of competent participants is hardly dry. If anything, the success of such a competition should only bolster the ambitious spirit of universities, engineering firms, and (lest we forget) even high schools. As the competition plods on, the importance of ongoing trials and experimentation isn’t lost on the tech’s mastermind.

“I think it’s just going to get better and better every year,” Musk said. “It’s ultimately going to be something that inspires the world and results in real transportation technologies that help make people’s lives better.”