The Washington Hyperloop team is counting on the third time being the charm.
But it’s not just a question of superstitious sayings: For SpaceX’s third university Hyperloop competition, the three dozen student engineers and entrepreneurs on the University of Washington’s pod-racing team have reworked the design for their vehicle from the ground up.
“Everything on this pod has been redesigned, manufactured,” said team co-leader Nicole Lambert, a junior who’s majoring in mechanical engineering. “It’s a completely new pod from the last two years.”
The pod racer had its formal unveiling at UW on Friday night. It’ll be put to the ultimate test next month, when SpaceX hosts a series of practice runs and races inside a mile-long enclosed test track next to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
More than 20 teams from around the world will vie for fresh bragging rights in a friendly competition that dates back to 2015, when SpaceX billionaire founder Elon Musk set up the program.
The idea behind the pod races is to encourage the next generation of engineers to come up with innovations to advance the high-speed transit concept that Musk first proposed five years ago.
During the first pod-race contest in January 2017, Washington Hyperloop just missed the chance to get a full-fledged, low-pressure run through the test tube. Hyperloop II was held last August, but technical glitches kept the UW team out of the finals.
For next month’s Hyperloop III contest, the team has switched from an electric-motor propulsion system to a cold-gas thruster system powered by compressed nitrogen. “Nothing like this cold-gas thruster design has ever been done before,” said Washington Hyperloop’s other co-leader, Mitchell Frimodt.
The pod’s designers also dispensed with the sleek, bobsled-style shell that enclosed the original racer. To reduce weight and increase speed, the guts of the machine have been left on full display. There are just a couple of Husky-purple panels on the sides to display the logos of the team’s many corporate sponsors.
“They’re really light,” Frimodt said. “It’s mostly for aesthetics and safety. And besides, it makes it look like a TIE fighter.”
The racer hasn’t been put to a full-up test yet, but Lambert said computer simulations suggest it could hit a top speed in excess of 200 mph. That would match the top speed in Hyperloop II, which was won by the WARR Hyperloop team from Germany’s Technical University of Munich.
The big question is whether WARR and other rivals have come up with their own innovations that will raise the bar even higher for Hyperloop III.
Eventually, commercial ventures such as Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Musk’s own Boring Company plan to send pods zipping through low-pressure tubes at speeds of up 700 mph. Some of the students working on pod racers for Hyperloop III may well find themselves working for those ventures after they graduate.
The teams competing in Hyperloop III will be getting a head start on a trek through the frontiers of transportation technology — and Lambert said she and her teammates want to see everyone succeed. Up to a point, that is.
“We’re all very supportive of each other,” she said. “But we also would like to win.”