The experimental form of transportation called hyperloop may sound like a Jetson-like way to jettison across the U.S. in the time it takes to watch “Game of Thrones,” but tests this weekend further prove the technology is far from science fiction.
On Sunday, SpaceX hosted its second Hyperloop Pod Competition, a student-focused event meant to produce new hyperloop pods and prospective hyperloop engineers. The winning team was WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich, clocking in a speed of about 200 miles per hour on the mile-long half-size vacuum track set up in Hawthorne, California.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in the future, we’ll get even as high as 500, 600 kilometers per hour, even more, despite this (test track) being less than one and a half kilometers in length,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told a cheering crowd after WARR’s run.
Hyperloop was introduced as a technology concept by Musk in 2013. The idea is to transport people and goods to and from major metropolises within hours, using levitating pods inside vacuum tubes as alternatives to planes or cars. One example is a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route that only takes 30 minutes.
Hyperloop One also recently completed the world’s first full-size test in Las Vegas, speeding a pod up to about 70 miles per hour. The fastest pod at another SpaceX competition in January went about 60 miles per hour — also created by WARR Hyperloop.
The huge jump in speed not only shows that higher speeds are possible, but it suggests the technology could speed up, literally, faster than expected.
Hyperloop competitors interviewed at the SpaceX event resoundingly said full-size hyperloop pods could definitely reach imagined speeds of 700 miles per hour or faster one day. At least, if engineers have resources and regulatory wiggle room to experiment.
“It’s not a technical breakthrough that needs to happen to make this a reality,” said Arjun Chaudhary, a team member with BadgerLoop from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s more a policy issue.”
Realistically, a working hyperloop system is probably at least a decade away. Regulatory frameworks, funding mechanisms and even details like insurance plans needs to be figured out before such a system could get set up at an near-by airport. But from a purely technical perspective, shooting a pod full of people at ultra-high speeds across hundreds of miles is entirely possible to achieve within years, engineers stated, assuming rigorous development took place.
“It’s possible, but you have to do a lot of things,” Daniel Kaufmann, head of engineering for Zurich-based Swissloop told Fox News. “You need 500 miles of tube. After 10 years or 15 years, you pay it off.”
So how would they make a bus-long pod carrying people or cargo get to ultra-high speeds without crashing? Engineers at Sunday’s competition had enough ideas to fill a textbook.
WARR Hyperloop’s system worked by using an electric motor specially designed for their pod, plus a clamping system that held the motorized wheel onto the track, essentially keeping “pedal to the metal.” The motor was designed by a colleague from another university to be used in racing cars, but the concept is similar in hyperloop — stay light and stay fast, said Manfred Schwarz, WARR co-captain and master’s student in mechanical engineering.
Speed comes with its costs: heat, control and safety.
The faster you go in the partial vacuum, the more air you hit up against and the hotter the hyperloop tube becomes. Plastics could melt and people could suffer heat stroke. That problem could be solved in a number of ways — using materials that can withstand heat, adding a cooling system or only carrying cargo — but each comes with its own drawbacks.
Control is a serious consideration when galloping along at hundreds of miles an hour, Paradigm Loop electrical team lead and Northeastern University student Matan Kaminski said. “For airplanes, before they started protecting the electric equipment, a small error would cause the plane to drop hundreds of feet.”
That can be solved by having redundant protective features around sensors to protect it from the harsh vacuum environment, like those used in airplanes.
Safety is another matter altogether. Given the constraints inside a solid concrete tube, any jolt in the wrong direction could mean a disastrous crash. And unlike some forms of transportation, hyperloop pods need to be kept straight if they are going to avoid derailment. Cargo will likely be the first passengers on any hyperloop, even after it’s cleared safety tests.
Of course, even if those kinks are worked out, it’s looking more unlikely the U.S. will have hyperloop travel first. Hyperloop One is working on a plan to link Dubai with Abu Dhabi, and the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Moscow to develop a system there. Hyperloop One also announced it received funding last year from Dubai-based DP World Group, which operates ports, suggesting hyperloop could be used to rapidly offload shipments.
“Hyperloop is definitely possible,” Kaufmann said. “It just takes a lot of time.”