On a recent Sunday, hundreds of engineering students and fans of futuristic, high-speed transportation gathered under a blazing sun outside the headquarters of SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif., to do two things: watch some hyperloop pods go really fast, and informally celebrate the achievements of Elon Musk.
The SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition was a chance for 20 teams of engineering students to race their electrically powered, carbon-fiber pods through SpaceX’s three-quarter mile long steel hyperloop tube. But it was also a chance to sit in the driver seat of a Model 3, peer inside a Dragon capsule, stand in the shadow of a 10-foot tall obelisk built from Boring Company bricks, and stock up on some serious Musk swag. Falcon Heavy t-shirts, hyperloop stickers, and framed posters of SpaceX’s Tesla Roadster-driving “Starman” — all available for purchase.
It’s been a rough few months for Musk
It’s been a rough few months for Musk, and his legions of devoted fans. Tesla continues to struggle through the “production hell” of the mass-market Model 3 sedan, burning through billions of dollars in cash and worrying investors about the company’s financial future. The company laid off 9 percent of its staff in June, but says its on target to earn a profit later this year. Meanwhile, Musk’s attempt to insert himself in the rescue operation of the youth soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand was widely panned. And he was forced to apologize to one of the cave rescuers for calling him a pedophile without justification after he dubbed Musk’s attempt to help save the stranded boys with a “kid-size submarine” a PR stunt.
And now here he is, throwing his idea of the best party on earth: a competition for engineering students. There was ping pong, SpaceX-branded Jenga, food trucks selling poké bowls, and an 80s cover band called the Spazmatics. It was like Bonnaroo (Elon-aroo?) meets the XPrize, with a splash of high school science fair. Striding past the hyperloop teams’ booths with his five sons, his girlfriend Canadian pop star Grimes, and a team of bodyguards in tow, Musk appeared utterly at ease. He bent over to inspect one prototype, and then cracked a physics joke to the pod’s designers. They laughed hysterically.
“There are so many things in the world that cause people to be depressed about the future, or pessimistic,” Musk later told the teams. “I think one of the things that you’re doing is making people excited about the future. Those things are rare. It actually energizes me about the future.”
“There are so many things in the world that cause people to be depressed about the future”
All of the action was concentrated at the mouth of the hyperloop track, where attendees crowded onto metal risers to watch the teams race their pods through the low-pressure tube. Or rather, since the tube was vacuum-sealed and completely opaque, watch a livestream of the races from cameras placed inside.
Before the pod races, rumors were circulating that one team would hit 300 mph, or maybe beyond. But right out of the gate, there were malfunctions. “We are ready for launch!” a member of the Dutch team announced to the audience. “Are you guys ready?” The crowd cheered. “All right, 5…4…3…2…1!”
Nothing happened. Some chuckling came from the riser. “All right,” the Delft University team sighed, “we need to reset some parameters.”
In 2013, Musk published his “alpha paper” which theorized that aerodynamic aluminum capsules filled with passengers or cargo could be propelled through a nearly airless tube at airliner-speeds of up to 760 mph. These tubes, either raised on pylons or sunk beneath the earth, could be built either within or between cities. He called it a “fifth mode of transportation” and argued it could help change the way we live, work, trade, and travel. The most eye-catching scenario he proposed was a trip from LA to San Francisco in only 30 minutes. The idea captured the imaginations of engineers and investors across the world.
But Musk said he didn’t have time to pursue the hyperloop — too busy running Tesla and SpaceX — and instead just released the paper online as an open source concept.
A number of startups have taken Musk’s proposal and run with it: Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Arrivo, to name three of the most prominent. They’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, funded environmental impact studies and economic analyses, released prototypes and concept sketches, and landed handshake-deals with a number of foreign governments to begin building full-scale hyperloops. Today, there are hyperloop test tracks in California and Nevada, as well as two that are under construction in China and France. The hyperloop is just five years old, but it’s quickly gaining traction around the world.
The hyperloop faces serious headwinds
Which is not to say the futuristic, high-speed transportation system isn’t facing serious headwinds. Ground has yet to be broken on any full-scale hyperloops anywhere in the world. We have a handful of test sites and nothing more. No governments have signed contracts. The companies that are chasing the hyperloop dream are occasionally strapped for cash and a bit scandal worn. And the amount of money it would take to build a real working hyperloop remains amorphous and difficult to pin down — but is most certainly billions of dollars.
SpaceX began sponsoring hyperloop competitions for undergraduate and graduate engineering students in 2016. The first one, held at Texas A&M University, featured over 1,000 students from 120 colleges and 20 countries. It was just a design competition, no demonstrations or races, but still managed to accomplish its goal of fostering enormous excitement for the hyperloop. The event relocated to Hawthorne in 2017, so the teams could try out their prototype pods on SpaceX’s newly constructed track. The company hosted two competitions that year, one in January and the other in August. And the teams’ pods did incrementally better — and went a little faster — each time.
“That pissed off a bunch of the teams”
This past Sunday’s event was the third time SpaceX invited the students to race their pods, but the stakes were much higher. “The competition will focus on a single criterion—maximum speed,” the website for the event read. “Additionally, all Pods must be self-propelled.”
The prior two pod races featured a “pusher” vehicle, built with a Tesla drivetrain, that was used to get each teams’ pod going inside the tube. This time, the pusher was retired, and the teams were instructed to build their own propulsion systems. A formidable challenge, but some teams breathed a quiet sigh of relief: last August, the pusher vehicle bested the winning team’s pod after Musk decided on a whim to race it in the tube. The Tesla/SpaceX vehicle got up to 220 mph, faster than the winning student team’s top speed of 201 mph. “That pissed off a bunch of the teams,” one student told me.
Like the weather, the mood in Hawthorne was sunny. This was the culmination of years of work for many of the teams, some of which traveled thousands of miles for the chance to race their pods on Musk’s track.
On Sunday, only three teams qualified to race their pods: WARR Hyperloop from Germany, Delft University from the Netherlands, and EPFLoop from Switzerland. The rest of the teams were relegated to the sidelines, though none of them seemed that salty about it. To them, the chance to work closely with engineers from SpaceX and the Boring Company, to conduct tests on the full-scale hyperloop track, and to interact and collaborate with other teams was worth more than the airfares and meal prices and hotel fees they racked up over the course of the week leading up to the event.
“They were being a lot more rigorous this year”
“They were being a lot more rigorous this year,” said James Ewald, structural lead of University of Wisconsin’s Badgerloop team, as we rode in the team’s beat-up Dodge minivan to the event Sunday morning. Badgerloop’s hyperloop pod, nicknamed “Bloop,” did not qualify to race in the final division, but they were still hoping to nab an innovation award. And there was always next year’s competition, too. “Now that we know what we did wrong, we should be able to fix all those issues.”
Building a workable hyperloop pod isn’t the only thing these teams need to do to qualify for the competition. For over a year now, they have been raising money and wooing sponsors to fund their involvement in the pod competition. And it’s not cheap: in addition to parts and labor, the teams were responsible for their own travel, food, and accommodations. Some bigger teams have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, built fully functional test tracks of their own, and even hired their outside PR firms to help them drum up media coverage. The professionalization of what is essentially a student competition is a little jarring. Delft is actively considering spinning out its own hyperloop company, while the Technical University of Munich built the WARR team its own school.
The professionalization of a student competition is a little jarring.
“There’s a really high barrier of entry into this competition,” Ewald said. “All of the companies that sponsor most of the teams that come to these competitions then look for these people come hiring time.”
Thanks to massive sponsorships, Delft’s team got to stay at Airbnbs in Hollywood, while Badgerloop had to make do with the Best Western Plus in Gardena. WARR and Delft’s teams arrived three weeks before the event, even though SpaceX only required the teams’ presence for one week of pre-trials. But despite these discrepancies, there were very few complaints from any of the teams I spoke to. Most were just happy to be there.
Delft’s team won awards in two of the prior hyperloop competitions, so expectations were high for the students from the Netherlands. But a fried circuit board the night before the race almost eliminated Delft’s chances at competing. The team scrambled to find an older circuit board that could be swapped in, working all through the night, and eventually pulled it off in time for Sunday’s race. And despite the initial failed countdown, Delft was able to get its pod moving — but only up to a top speed of 88 mph (141 kmh) before stopping in the middle of the tube.
“The distance that we made, 125 meters, was really good,” said Maaike Hakker, the team’s head of marketing and finance. Still, the top speed was a disappointment: Delft had been aiming for 280 mph (450 kmh), Hakker said.
The next team, EPFLoop from Switzerland, also ran into problems. After an hour and a half of system checks in the vacuum-sealed tube, the pod’s communication system stopped working.The team was slated to race at 11:45 am, but they were delayed for over two hours. Finally, it was discovered that the battery system had died, so EPFLoop was given 10 minutes to swap out a battery. And while the livestream seemed to show the team’s pod exceeding 100 mph, it was later logged at just 53 mph (85 kmh) by SpaceX’s independent verification.
After those two disappointing turns, it was WARR Hyperloop’s turn — and the German team did not disappoint. As the team’s members jostled to find shade under a canopy, WARR’s pod sprinted to peak speed of 290 mph (466 kmh) — a new global record. It wasn’t the rumored 300 mph, but it was close enough.
Paul Direktor, head of business for WARR Hyperloop, said he was amazed by what his team was able to accomplish. I asked him if he was familiar with the concepts of a “three-peat” or “hat trick,” but he just shrugged. A question about inspiration was much easier to answer.
“Every team is very committed to the cause”
“Every team is very committed to the cause,” he gushed. “Elon Musk and SpaceX are doing such great work and encouraging us in this hyperloop work, and it’s so dynamic and awesome to be here and work together with people who are also working on awesome goals. It’s just amazing to contribute.”
Our interview was cut short, though: it was time to take a picture with Elon. Sweating slightly through his gray t-shirt, Musk crouched down as WARR’s team crowded in for the photo. His gaze was inscrutable behind aviator sunglasses. But after the photo was finished, he raised his fist in celebration. The team cheered.