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Pipe Dreams: A Conversation with the Engineers at the Hyperloop Competition

The SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition is Sunday, and dozens of teams are vying for the glory of creating the best hyperloop pod.

Meredith Rutland Bauer

Meredith Rutland Bauer

GatorLoop from the University of Florida works on their pod. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer/Motherboard

Hyperloop will take one step forward from science fiction to working technology this weekend. 30 teams from universities across the world will compete this Sunday at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, for the honor of creating the best hyperloop pod.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk created the idea of hyperloop, a 745-mile-per-hour train-like transportation system, in an open sourced white paper in 2013. His vision was to create a way to get people from city to city twice as fast as an airplane. While SpaceX has said it won't be pursuing hyperloop itself, the company created the Hyperloop Pod Competition and narrowed down teams through 2016.

The competition Sunday afternoon will be a major step in the future of hyperloop development, teams told Motherboard, and they're excited to see how the technology evolves in the coming years.

I spoke with three team leaders to discuss the competition, their motivation, and their vision for the future of hyperloop.

MIT Hyperloop prepares their pod for a test run. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer/Motherboard

Motherboard: How long did it take you to get here? Have you had to make any sacrifices in the process?
Tim Houter, team captain of Delft Hyperloop, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands
: We started in June 2015, and we've done the design and manufacturing for prototyping in just one year. And what we gave up is that our team consists of part-time and full-time members, and the full-time members just put their studies on hold for the time that the project is going. But what you see is that you learn so much in such a project, we think way more than what'd you'd do in school, so we think it's worth it.

John Mayo, project manager of MIT Hyperloop, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A lot of us couldn't really do any other extra curricular activities. A lot of us are graduate students, so we pretty much did our research, classwork, and this. We have people putting in 30 hours a week … hundreds of thousands of man hours into this pod.

Duncan Adams, technical director of Badgerloop, from University of Wisconsin, Madison: It's taken a very, very long time. A lot of our team members have sacrificed a lot for this project. I think we all would say it's worth it. Most of the people here probably spend 60 to 80 hours a week on this project, and they still have to go to school. So that's quite a bit of work, and we've been at it basically since this time last year with that workload. So it's been quite crazy.

What do you think the hyperloop industry is going to look like after this competition is over and the information is open sourced?
Houter
: I think the hyperloop industry will converge to something quite similar to the aerospace and railway industry. There will be a few worldwide, global players manufacturing hyperloop capsules, manufacturing the infrastructure and really getting commercial roots up and running.

Mayo: The technology that a lot of us are using is out there, but having it all packed together will really help. Some of the companies out there probably know most of the things we know. But I think it'll help spread it to the public, for sure. It will help make the world aware that this is something we can do. It's not just some pipe dream. It's actually a physical thing that's out there.

Adams: The hyperloop industry, it's not really an industry yet, right? Some day, it will be. But I hope that next year, this competition and all the hyperloop competitions after this one will yield technologies that are fully scalable for a full-sized hyperloop.

SpaceX's hyperloop test chamber for Sunday's competition. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer/Motherboard

What type of culture is being formed at this competition?
Houter:
What we see is everyone is very open and helpful to each other. Everyone just wants to make the best out of it. Everything has to happen in a very short amount of time, so people are running short on resources. They ask other teams, "Hey, do you have this? Maybe we can borrow it." Everybody's very open and willing to help other teams, and that creates a very nice atmosphere.

Adams: This is a really interesting culture. Everybody here is really excited about the project. Everybody here wants to invest in others' success. I think that's one thing we didn't expect going in. When we went into this competition, we expected it to be kind of cut-throat and everybody to be like, "Let's just make our pod work." But we've been lending stuff to other teams. They've been lending stuff to us. Everybody's here to help eachother out and to help our pods succeed. It's such a monumental task to even launch a pod that the culture of camaraderie here at the competition has been amazing.

What comes next?
Houter:
I think a lot of hyperloop companies will pay a lot of attention to students who have participated in this competition. Maybe even some companies will arise out of this competition, so it's definitely a great boost for all the hyperloop development.

Adams:In terms of the long term hyperloop industry, I hope it becomes a thing. I would actually like to take a hyperloop across the country. But it's going to be a few years before that is even looking like a possibility.