On Friday, SpaceX will kick off its first-ever Hyperloop pod competition at Texas A&M University — and we'll be there. Thousands of engineering students from all over the world will display their designs for the futuristic, tube-based, crazy-fast transportation system popularized by Elon Musk in 2013. In addition, hundreds of tech evangelists, transportation gurus, and curious onlookers will descend on the university's Hall of Champions, adding to the circus-like environment.
Some will no doubt be skeptical of the Hyperloop, unconvinced that it can overcome the legitimate physical, financial, and regulatory challenges that lay in its way. Others, drunk on the hype, will be convinced the Hyperloop will solve all the world's transportation woes.
The Hyperloop's first big party
But the pod-design competition is just Part One of Musk's grand plans for the Hyperloop in 2016. His company recently selected a global construction firm to build a one-mile test track adjacent to SpaceX's Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters. And later this year, probably in June, SpaceX will invite the winners of the pod-design competition, as well as anyone else with a Hyperloop pod they want to test out, to race their designs on the new track. (No word on whether Jake Lloyd, aka young Anakin Skywalker, will fire the starting gun.)
So who's going to be at the pod-design competition? And what can you expect? First, it's worth noting who won't be at the event: Musk himself. The billionaire CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla Motors has been careful to keep most of the Hyperloop activity at arm's length. SpaceX has no affiliation with any of the commercial entities currently developing Hyperloop plans, the company says frequently. Nor does it plan to build a commercially viable Hyperloop itself. That said, the competition is sponsored by SpaceX, so the company will obviously have a huge presence there.
Musk is leaving the task of building an actual Hyperloop — if such a thing is possible — to companies like Hyperloop Technologies Inc. (HTI), one of the two Los Angeles-based startups hoping to make Musk's dream a reality. All three of HTI's top executives — CEO Rob Lloyd, co-founder Shervin Pishevar, and chief technology officer Brogan BamBrogan — will be in Texas for the pod-design competition, as well as 10 of the company's engineers. The company is also providing $150,000 in prize money for the winners.
Attending: SpaceX, HTI, Arx Pax, Nickelodeon; Not attending: HTT, Elon Musk
The other LA-based Hyperloop startup, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), will not be in attendance. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn called the pod-design competition "a distraction." (He later said he was "misquoted.") Ahlborn told The Verge that HTT is supporting some of the student teams, but won't be contributing any money to the winners. HTT is built on a crowdsourcing and volunteer platform, and isn't a traditionally structured startup like HTI.
US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will deliver a keynote address Friday evening on the "future of transportation." But if that sounds kind of boring, the event will also feature a number of demonstrations of cool, futuristic technology that is sure to get your fingers tweeting. Arx Pax, the makers of the Hendo Hoverboards (actual hoverboards that actually hover), will be demonstrating its new magnetic levitation technology, which roughly half of the student teams are utilizing in their designs.
Attendees will also get the chance to strap on Oculus Rift VR goggles and see a 360-degree simulation of SapceX's Hyperloop test track being built in California. And just for the hell of it, there will be a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jet simulator, so fire up the Kenny Loggins and call me Maverick, because that sounds pretty badass.
Hyperloop to the danger zone
But while there will be a ton of cool toys, SpaceX insists this competition is about fostering excitement about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) among the hundred-plus student teams. As such, Nickelodeon, the home of such shows as Rugrats, Doug, and Hey Arnold, will be at the competition, keeping an eye mainly on the high school teams. The cable channel has already been in talks with one high school team to provide up to $20,000 in donations to help fund the construction of the team's subsystem.
Realistically, many of the students at the competition will be angling for post-college careers, with SpaceX sure to be at the top of many lists. In addition to HTI, there will be 17 non-university teams that won't be competing in the competition, but will be submitting prototypes to test in Musk's pod race this June. And when you get that many thirsty college students and cash-rich tech startups in one giant room, a nerdy feeding frenzy is sure to follow.