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Hyperloop One test sled
Hyperloop One’s propulsion test sled zooms down a Nevada desert track. (Credit: Hyperloop One)

The newly renamed Hyperloop One venture sent an electrically propelled sled down a Nevada test track at speeds that went beyond 100 mph in just two seconds, marking the public debut of its rapid-transit propulsion system.

Hundreds of journalists and VIPs watched the open-air propulsion test, which represents a milestone in the effort to commercialize a high-speed transportation system conceived three years ago by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

Theoretically, such a system could transport passengers in levitating pods through elevated tubes at near-supersonic speeds, bridging the distance between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles in a half-hour.

But turning theory into fact will probably require spending billions of dollars, pioneering scores of technologies and negotiating unprecedented regulatory hurdles. Today’s test was meant to demonstrate first-generation Hyperloop technology, and show that Hyperloop One was serious about building hardware and laying track, albeit for scaled-down testing.

Hyperloop One already has raised more than $100 million for its venture, including $80 million in investments that were announced on Tuesday.

“The overwhelming response we’ve had already confirms what we’ve always known, that Hyperloop One is at the forefront of a movement to solve one of the planet’s most pressing problems,” company co-founder and executive chairman Shervin Pishevar said in a statement.. “The brightest minds are coming together at the right time to eliminate the distances and borders that separate economies and cultures.”

Hyperloop One characterized today’s test as a success. It involved using a linear electric motor to rev up a driverless test sled and send it down a half-mile-long railroad track in a desert locale north of Las Vegas. Organizers said the sled reached a top speed of 116 mph and peak acceleration of 2.5 G’s in the first two seconds. Then the sled blasted into a pile of sand that slowed it to a stop.

The whole thing was over in 10 seconds.

Eventually, Hyperloop One intends to get the sled going as fast as 400 mph. At the same time, the company is building a full-scale, elevated tube system in the desert. That prototype is scheduled for completion by the end of the year and could propel pods at close to the target speed of 760 mph. Hyperloop One’s CEO, Rob Lloyd, said that would represent “a Kitty Hawk moment” – referring to the site of the Wright Brothers’ first powered airplane flight in 1903.

Other ventures are looking for their moments as well. So far, Musk has hung back from joining the commercial fray and is focusing instead on a student-focused pod competition that’s due to reach its climax this summer. However, another venture called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies plans to have its own full-scale prototype track in operation by 2018.

Building the prototypes will be only the beginning of the journey for the commercial ventures. It’s likely to take years longer to move from the experimental testbeds to honest-to-goodness regional transit systems. And there’s also a chance that the Hyperloop will end up leading to nothing but a technological dead end.

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