The hyperloop isn't real yet, but the businesses supporting its development certainly are.
Motherboard recorded a companion podcast, "The Hyperloop," to go along with this piece. Radio Motherboard is available on all podcasting apps and on Soundcloud.
In a giant room usually reserved for celebrating Texas A&M University's sports history, more than a thousand people are excitedly talking about a future that remains largely theoretical. They've flown here from Washington, from California, from Australia, from Cairo, from Poland, from Massachusetts, from Spain. Without fail, they all took taxis to the airport then rented cars when they landed and drove two hours from Austin or Houston to College Station. No one is particularly enthused about this fact.
"It was a nine-hour trip," Megan Smith, a student at Purdue University in Indiana told me. "But on the hyperloop, we probably could have been here in about an hour and a half."
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The problem, of course, is that there is no such thing as a hyperloop, at least not yet. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk proposed a futuristic tube-based "fifth mode of transportation" on a whim back in 2013 after he got stuck in traffic. He described it as the resulting baby from a "three way" between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table, capable of traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a little over 30 minutes at speeds of 760 miles per hour.
"I thought people would not ask me about it in the future, but then they did," Musk said at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Design Weekend earlier this month in Texas. "I thought I better come up with something that actually does work. And then I actually only came to a solution we thought would work only two days before we published it. I basically put it on the website and did a 30-minute talk, and it just went bananas."
After briefly talking about it in public, Musk published a white paper that went into specifics of how it would work: Use vacuum pumps to take the air out of an enclosed tube to reduce air pressure, remove the wheels from a "pod" to reduce friction, and use some induction motors to shoot the pod down the tube very quickly.
Two and a half years later, actually traveling on a hyperloop is still theoretical, but its effect on business is not. There is a very real, bonafide industry of people trying very hard to make the hyperloop. The way Smith and everyone else in the industry talks about it, the hyperloop is is not some futuristic thing—it's an engineering problem that's being actively solved by real companies and real engineers.
"The hyperloop is real," Brogan BamBrogan, a former SpaceX employee and cofounder of Hyperloop Technologies told me.
If the hyperloop is real, then the pod design weekend was its coming out party. Hosted by SpaceX at Texas A&M University, the weekend featured more than 1,000 students split between 180 university teams, each of them armed with design schematics, computer models, and physics proofs that suggest it'll be possible to build hyperloop pods that can successfully navigate a one-mile test track being built by SpaceX on its Hawthorne, California campus. More strikingly were the number of companies and professional engineers there whose main business and job description is, broadly speaking: Make the hyperloop into a tangible thing.
The hyperloop is, at best, a side project for SpaceX. It's Musk's brainchild, but he's been focused primarily on making reusable rockets and electric cars. But the excitement surrounding Musk's original paper and its open-source nature has opened the door for companies to begin competing to build it. The SpaceX contest, meanwhile, has spurred interest from student engineers who will ultimately become the next wave of employees for companies like Hyperloop Technologies.
BamBrogan's Hyperloop Technologies is one of two companies actively trying to build full-scale hyperloops that are capable of transporting people. It has 109 employees, has secured $26 million in funding from venture capitalists with a plan to raise $80 million in its Series B round, a giant workspace in Los Angeles, and a plot of land north of Las Vegas that will be home to a hyperloop prototype by the end of the year if everything goes according to plan.
"We're beginning construction of our full scale hyperloop which will be operational and showing the world within a year that this is real," Rob Lloyd, Hyperloop Technologies's CEO and a former Cisco executive, told me. "The power of the movement and the speed with which it's moving forward will allow people to see this happen on a timeframe no one thought was possible."
A less traditional company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (this one came first, and the similar-sounding names are a source of much contention), allows its engineers to work part time in exchange for stock options, and is also working on a test track.
While the students were the main focus of the event, it became immediately clear that, as a direct result of the cash influx from SpaceX and Hyperloop Technologies's investors, there are now companies in related fields that are now in the very real hyperloop business.
"I'm starting to think it's really going to happen"
One engineer at Hyperloop Technologies told me she regularly works with manufacturers to obtain components that can power a track. Arx Pax, a California-based company that started as a hoverboard manufacturer now believes its magnetic levitation engines will ultimately be used in the hyperloop. The hover engines work on banked surfaces, which could make it possible for the hyperloop to turn, which is one of the big engineering challenges that still need to be worked out.
"We fundamentally believe the hyperloop is the best application for our technology," Scott Santandrea, head of business development at Arx Pax, told me. "The hyperloop needs a system for propulsion, lift, braking, and control. Our engines handle every one of those—it enables a lot of things in a system design that make the hyperloop simpler to build."
Arx Pax has already sold "dozens" of its $1,289 "hyperloop developer kits," which comes with four hover engines, enough to build a scale model of a hyperloop pod.
Professional engineering teams were there pitching hyperloop braking systems, tube designs, and high speed wheels that could be used in case magnetic levitation doesn't work out or proves too complicated for an initial hyperloop design. One team even designed a "parabag," which is a cross between a parachute and an airbag that could hopefully stop hyperloop pods from killing their passengers in the case of an emergency.
Larry Kearns, an all-things-Elon-Musk enthusiast and principal architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects in Chicago, designed an entire model hyperloop station that you could plop down on the corner of any city block. He describes the whole experience as "cafe-like," more like getting on an above-ground metro train than dealing with airport security.
"We came here as an architecture firm because we wanted to address the issue of integrating the hyperloop in existing cities," Kearns told me. "From our point of view, the hyperloop's success is really about its viability from a user's perspective."
Musk designed and proposed the hyperloop two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, he's remained almost entirely hands off, and has mostly refrained from talking about it, preferring to focus on the electric car revolution and on creating reusable rockets. At the end of the conference, he finally showed up to talk about hyperloop. He must have been surprised and impressed in what's been going on in his absence.
"I'm starting to think it's really going to happen," he said. "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."
The hope is that, in a few years, maybe we won't have to spend so much time sitting in traffic and waiting in security lines to get to an engineering conference about the future of transportation.