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SpaceX test track for Hyperloop
A pod rolls down an enclosed test track next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (SpaceX Photo)

Three student teams got through the engineering gauntlet and sent their Hyperloop pods through a mile-long tube to test a new mode of transportation today.

The pod races were the climax of this weekend’s first-ever Hyperloop competition – hosted by SpaceX at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and backed by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who came up with the Hyperloop concept in 2013.

Twenty-seven teams, including a squad from the University of Washington, brought their fast-moving, high-tech machines to Hawthorne for testing.

But there was only enough time for three of the teams – coming from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Germany’s Technical University of Munich – to pass all of today’s required preliminaries and make a tube run under full race conditions.

“We completed all tests and were ready to go, as were a few other teams,” David Coven, one of the leaders of the UW Hyperloop team, told GeekWire in an email. “There just wasn’t enough time to race each of the teams.”

The German team, known as WARR Hyperloop, clocked the fastest time of the three, traveling through the vacuum tube at a maximum speed of 94 kilometers per hour (58 mph). Delft won the overall prize, based on the points given for design and safety as well as for speed.

The biggest star of the show was Musk himself. Students flocked around the billionaire as he strode past the teams’ booths and inspected the hardware.

“You’ve done incredible work,” he told them during an afternoon gathering. “Well done.”

Musk said the volunteer effort was just one step along a path he hoped would eventually lead to a transportation network that’s capable of carrying people at near-supersonic speeds between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about a half-hour.

“What this is really intended to do is to encourage innovation in transport technology,” he said. “To get people excited about new forms of transport, things that may be completely different from what we see today.”

SpaceX built the enclosed test track, which Musk said was “the second-biggest vacuum chamber in the world, after the Large Hadron Collider.” But it was up to the teams to build the scaled-down test pods, which showed off magnetic levitation and other exotic technologies.

One team, Japan’s Keio Alpha, designed the components of its pod so they could be carried in the luggage of team members as they made their way to SpaceX’s headquarters, which is about six miles from Los Angeles International Airport.

Musk gave a shout-out not only to SpaceX’s Hyperloop tube, but also to his plans to dig a tunnel that could provide a short cut through Los Angeles’ tangled traffic.

“We started digging a hole,” Musk said. “So on Crenshaw [Boulevard], which is in front of SpaceX headquarters, there’s a giant hole. I find holes in the ground exciting, I was discussing this with my girlfriend. She didn’t find it that exciting, but I thought it was really great. It’s right there, you can check it out.”

Last week, the Daily Breeze reported that this initial tunnel would go beneath Crenshaw, one of L.A.’s busiest thoroughfares, merely to let employees walk from one side of the street to the other without having to cross traffic.

But Musk said the tunnel could blaze a trail for far more ambitious holes in the ground:

“That’s going to be the start, a hole for the tunnel boring machine. We’re going to just try to figure out what it takes to improve tunneling speed by …  somewhere between 500 and 1,000 percent is, I think, possible, if you apply a limit-of-physics approach. We’ll see how far we can get. We’re just sort of muddling along. We have no idea what we’re doing, let’s be clear about that.

“We’re going to get this machine, figure it out, OK, take it apart, [and find out] how do we make it go much faster while still being safe and not affecting people on the surface and all that. We’ll see how much progress we can make. But I’m actually quite optimistic that tunneling can be improved by at least fivefold, maybe tenfold.

“That’s really key to a lot of technologies: road tunnels, Hyperloop tunnels, train tunnels. Because fundamentally you have to go 3-D in a city. If you’ve got tall buildings, they’re all 3-D. And then everyone wants to go into the building and leave the building at the same time. So then on a 2-D road network, that obviously does not work. You have to go 3-D, either up or down, and I think probably down … and then for longer distances, [for] things like the Hyperloop and other ideas.”

Musk’s focus on tunnels suggests that if the full-scale Hyperloop ever does get built, he might prefer to see a below-ground system rather than a network of elevated tubes.

It may not be totally up to him: At least two ventures, Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, are trying to develop commercial transit systems without Musk’s participation. But thanks to today’s comments, the subject of tunnel-boring technology will probably sound a lot less boring than it has in the past.

Here’s who won the Hyperloop competition’s awards:

  • Fastest team: WARR Hyperloop.
  • Highest overall score: Delft Hyperloop.
  • Safety and reliability award: MIT Hyperloop.
  • Performance and operations: University of Maryland. Honorable mention: Virginia Tech, Purdue, Hyperlift (St. John’s High School, Texas).
  • Performance in flight: WARR Hyperloop.
  • Innovation: Badgerloop (University of Wisconsin at Madison) and Team rLoop (the contest’s only non-student team, organized through Reddit). Honorable mention: VicHyper (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia).
  • Design and construction: The top 10, from 1 to 10, are Delft, WARR, MIT, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, University of Washington, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon University, Hyperlift, Keio Alpha.

“This is not a one-time event,” Steve Davis, SpaceX’s director of advanced projects, told the students. The next Hyperloop competition will take place this summer in Hawthorne, with the top honors decided solely on the basis of speed.

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