"With this level of attention, it’s clear the public and the world want something new."
Since proposing the futuristic "fifth mode of transportation" in 2013, Elon Musk hasn't said too much about the hyperloop, preferring to let the companies that are working on commercializing the whole levitating-pod-in-a-vacuum-tube thing to do most of the prognosticating. That changed Saturday, when Musk made a sort-of-surprise appearance at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Design Competition at Texas A&M University.
Hyperloops will use partially pressurized tubes to propel "pods" or passenger cars on a bed of air at speeds of up to 760 mph. SpaceX hosted a competition this weekend in which students designed the pods that will be tested on a mile-long track that SpaceX is building outside of its headquarters later this year.
Musk wasn't scheduled to appear at the competition, but when you throw a party for more than a thousand college students who idolize you, you've kind of got to show, right?
"What I really intended to do with the hyperloop was spur interest in new forms of transportation," Musk said to the students, who were hanging on his every word. "I'm starting to think it's really going to happen. With this level of attention, it's clear the public and the world want something new and I think you're going to bring it to them."
"What inspired me was I was stuck in LA traffic, I was an hour late for a talk and thought, 'there's got to be some better way to get around,'" Musk added.
Musk took questions from students for about a half hour, and went into detail about how he thinks the hyperloop will ultimately become a reality. He suggested that the first commercial hyperloop pods should use wheels (which are slower) as opposed to air bearings or magnetized levitation, because wheels are a tested technology.
"I advocate starting with the simplest useful system—I would advocate wheels so then you can say, OK, it's working," he said. "If you're trying to create a company, it's important to limit the number of miracles needed in a series. You want to start off with something that's the most doable and then expand from there."
Musk said that the company will likely sponsor another hyperloop competition next year, which may focus more on the design of the hyperloop tubes themselves as opposed to the pods. He also said SpaceX will likely build a five kilometer long hyperloop test track as a next step after the first test track, which is slated to be opened in June. And, though SpaceX has yet to formally back either of the two hyperloop companies (Hyperloop Technologies and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies), he didn't rule out putting his money behind one of them or potentially a new hyperloop company in the future.
"We're trying in general to support the idea and support innovation through technology," he said. "It's possible we would back a team, but we're trying to not favor one organization over another. We're trying to be as neutral as possible and just to generally be helpful."
Motherboard was at the competition all weekend. Over the next few days, we'll have lots more on-the-ground reporting, including interviews with university teams and the companies trying to build hyperloops.