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Elon Musk
Elon Musk, the originator of the Hyperloop concept, addresses students. (Texas A&M photo)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the top rating in the design phase of a SpaceX-sponsored contest to develop levitating cars for a Hyperloop rapid-transit test track. More than 20 other teams, including a student group from the University of Washington, were also cleared for this year’s big race.

The design weekend, conducted at Texas A&M University, marked the first winnowing of the field for the competition. More than 115 student engineering teams, representing 27 U.S. states and 20 countries, participated in the event.

The highlights included a talk by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx – and a surprise appearance by Elon Musk, the billionaire who heads SpaceX as well as the Tesla electric-car company.

In 2013, Musk came up with the Hyperloop concept, which involves shooting passenger pods through pneumatic tubes at near-supersonic speeds. Such a system could open the way for travel between, say, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles in about a half-hour.

Musk decided to make the Hyperloop open-source rather than taking it on himself, and he helped organize the competition in hopes of sparking innovative approaches to what’s likely to be a multibillion-dollar challenge.

“Honestly, I’m amazed by the fact that there’s been such an outpouring of enthusiasm and talent for the Hyperloop competition,” he told the cheering crowd at Texas A&M.

Musk said that some of the designs he saw were “really amazing.”

“I’m starting to think this is really going to happen,” he said. “It’s clear that the public and the world want something new, and I think you guys are going to bring it to them.”

Musk autographed the prizes that were handed out at the event.

The top teams will have to turn their designs into test vehicles that race against the clock on a mile-long (1.5-kilometer-long) test track that’s being built next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Musk said the finals will take place later in the year, “perhaps in the summer.”

“I think it’s going to be a really exciting event,” Musk said.

Even as the teams are working away, commercial ventures such as Hyperloop Transportation and Hyperloop Tech are working on their own prototype transit systems. Musk said he was still inclined to stay out of the commercial competition, at least for the time being.

“It’s possible we would back a team, but we’re trying not to favor one organization over another,” he said. “We’re trying to be as neutral as possible, and just generally trying to be helpful.”

During the Q&A session, Musk was asked what his next great idea might be. “I’ve been thinking about the vertical takeoff-and-landing electric jet a bit more,” he replied. “I think I have something that might close. I’m quite tempted to do something about it.”

Musk also said he’d like to see advances in tunnel-digging technologies. “If you have tunnels in cities, you could massively alleviate congestion,” he explained.

Foxx said he initially had reservations about the Hyperloop concept, but came around to the view that it was worth pursuing. There’s even a chance that federal research funding could go toward developing the concept.

“I think you have the potential for a moonshot here,” The Verge quoted him as saying.

Here’s the list of teams that took the spotlight at Texas A&M:

Top 5 student teams in ‘design and build’ category

  • Best Overall Design Award: MIT Hyperloop Team.
  • Pod Innovation Award: Delft Hyperloop, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.
  • Pod Technical Excellence Awards: Badgerloop, University of Wisconsin at Madison. Hyperloop at Virginia Tech. HyperXite, University of California at Irvine.

Other teams advancing to competition weekend in California

  • rLoop (non-student team).
  • uWaterloo Hyperloop, University of Waterloo.
  • UWashington Hyperloop, University of Washington.
  • University of Toronto.
  • RUMD Loop, University of Maryland and Rutgers University.
  • GatorLoop, University of Florida.
  • Team HyperLynx, University of Colorado-Denver.
  • Hyperloop UC, University of Cincinnati.
  • UCSB Hyperloop, University of California-Santa Barbara.
  • bLoop, University of California-Berkeley.
  • TAMU Aerospace Hyperloop, Texas A&M.
  • WARR Hyperloop, Technical University of Munich (Germany).
  • Purdue Hyperloop Design Team.
  • Codex, Oral Roberts University.
  • Lehigh Hyperloop.
  • Keio Alpha, Keio University.
  • Drexel Hyperloop.
  • Carnegie Mellon Hyperloop.

Subsystem design awards

  • Best Overall Subsystem Award: Auburn University Hyperloop Team.
  • Special Innovation Award in the Other Subsystem: RIT Imaging, Rochester Institute of Technology.
  • Levitation Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: TAMU Aerospace Hyperloop, Texas A&M.
  • Braking Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: VicHyper, RMIT University.
  • Propulsion/Compression Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: Makers UPV Team, Universitat Politència de Valencia (Spain).
  • Safety Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: UWashington Hyperloop, University of Washington.
  • Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: Hyped, University of Edinburgh.
  • Subsystem Technical Excellence Award: Conant Hyperloop Club, Conant High School (Hoffman States, Illinois).
  • Subsystem Innovation Award: Ryerson’s International Hyperloop Team, Ryerson University (Canada).

Design-only awards

  • Top Design Concept Award: Makers UPV Team, Universitat Politència de Valencia (Spain).
  • Design Concept Innovation Award: Nova Hyperloop Team, University of Cairo.
  • Design Concept Innovation Award: Auburn University Hyperloop Team, Auburn University.

Musk said there was no question that future Hyperloop competitions would follow this one.

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