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Hyperloop U: At SpaceX, Elon Musk’s high-tech transportation competition may be launching loads of careers

It’s the futuristic vision every wide-eyed engineering student dreams about. Let’s build something that could change the world.
For students competing in this year’s Hyperloop Pod Competition at SpaceX on Sunday, the future is now…or nearly now, anyway.
“The entire highway system is only able to accommodate so many people,” said Brianna Benson with a team from the University of Texas in Austin. “There’s no way there is going to be a solution if we stay in two dimensions whether it’s flying cars or the hyperloop system that we’re working on.”
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Benson joined more than 600 students among 20 university teams from around the world that descended on the SpaceX campus in Hawthorne this week in preparation for the third annual contest.
Elon Musk, who divides his time between a dizzying number of ventures, plans to be in attendance on Sunday as he has in years past. Musk is having quite the month, let alone the year, coming off a visit in July to Thailand where he tried to offer a solution to rescue the trapped soccer team followed by a trip to China to ink a deal for Tesla.
So, it is no wonder Musk has opted out of the commercial hyperloop business, leaving that instead to a handful of commercial companies and students such as those competing on Sunday.
After working all year designing and building prototypes to make possible this new form of high-speed ground transportation, students were busy this week running their pods on the SpaceX test track, seeing for the first time their hard work in motion.
“Every engineering student should do a project like this,” said Adora Tadros, an engineering student from UC Irvine working with about 60 teammates on the HyperXite team.
Even though the team had the shortest distance to travel out of any competitor, an easy commute away in Orange County, they stayed at a nearby hotel anyway. That’s so they more time to spend at the test track. They even worked on their pod deep into the evening back at the hotel, Tadros said.
“What we’re doing is really pushing ourselves,” Tadros said. “To be as competitive as we are just proves how much you can accomplish when you organize and set your minds to something.”
The contest rules are simple. The fastest pod to complete the one-mile track and come to a complete stop wins. Breaking as much as acceleration is the biggest challenge. Last year, the WARR Hyperloop team from the Technical University of Munich took the top spot.
The pods, which look like scale- down versions of futuristic rail cars, are suspended off the track by either magnetic or compressed-air levitation – and propelled using electromagnets. The tube is sealed on both ends, with the air sucked out of it. That creates a vacuum, resulting in a near friction-less environment, enabling extremely high speeds.
The tubes are envisioned to be suspended over the ground on columns or buried underground in congested metro areas.
The pods in Sunday’s competition will reach upwards of 100 mph in a short distance, but commercial pods currently designed by two leading companies can reach speeds of close to 700 mph. The technology could make a 45-minute trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco possible.
That’s at a cost estimated between $6 billion and $7.5 billion. Some see that as a much better option than Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial high-speed rail proposal in California, which has a most recent price tag of about $77 billion and is only expected to reach about 200 mph.
“With the hyperloop, a ton of economic opportunities open up that weren’t available before,” said Chris Mann with the team from Austin called Guadaloop. “That’s the future we see, connecting people in far off distances that weren’t connected before.”
The concept
The hyperloop concept was first proposed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk in a 2013 white paper titled “Hyperloop Alpha.”.
Musk said he’s decided not to get into the hyperloop business, leaving that instead to commercial ventures and students. (Though he subsequently founded The Boring Company, also based in Hawthorne, to create the kind of underground tunnels that could allow a hyperloop design in an urban environment. The company is currently digging a test tunnel under Los Angeles.)
Two commercial companies have risen above the field in recent years, including Virgin Hyperloop One backed by Richard Branson and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies based in Los Angeles. Both companies are inking deals to develop hyperloop systems in various cities – Hyperloop TT just signed a deal in China – but so far none of the tracks have become a functioning reality.
Hyperloop One has its sights on a route from L.A. to Las Vegas and another in Texas.
Additional deals for Hyperloop TT include projects in 13 locations around the world including from Cleveland to Chicago, Abu Dhabi and Ukraine, said spokesman Ben Cooke.The company employs a team of about 100 engineers but relies on about 40 companies and 900 people globally to supply parts and labor. Cooke praised the innovation model that’s been set in motion.
“It’s a huge infrastructure project and it cannot succeed with one company alone. It has to be a movement,” Cooke said. “As long as there are universities actively pursuing the technology and there are other companies in the market getting deals and working together to form the new set of regulations and laws that this new transportation system requires, that’s a good thing.”
While the Los Angeles company doesn’t plan on being involved in the competition at SpaceX this weekend, Cooke said it’s a great training ground for students.
“We have several team members who have come out of those programs,” he said.
For the students, the Hyperloop Pod Competition sets a goal for a project that encapsulates many different aspects of engineering.
“It’s basically everything we could want from an engineering internship, but it’s a bunch of college undergraduate and graduate students rather than a company,” Mann said.
Making it reality
With lots of big money behind the hyperloop concept, it appears the technology picking up steam. The students competing this weekend certainly believe so.
“We have all the technology to make hyperloop a reality,” Mann said. “It’s just the time and money it will take to visualize and get a product out there in order to speed up travel for the everyday person, that’s what people haven’t really put into yet.”
According to Cooke, the Hyperloop TT technology is ready to go tomorrow once the funding and right-of-way agreements are worked out, both complicated aspects that cannot be overlooked.
The hyperloop comes at a time when state officials continue grappling with a costly and controversial high-speed rail line, which utilizes some of the magnetic levitation technology but without the vacuum seal tube, and Metro in Los Angeles continues to expand its light rail system.
Christian Horvath, a councilmember in Redondo Beach who sits on the South Bay Cities Council of Government Transportation Committee, said the hyperloop concept was not something that has been discussed.
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“I don’t want to say it’s hypothetical, but in some ways it is,” Horvath said. “It’s not at the place where local agencies or even us at the regional level are looking at it.”
For the students at the competition on Sunday, all that matters is the technology.
A year’s worth of heart and soul will be laid bare on the track with no prize as stake other than pride.
“It’s an interesting experience just to be here,” said Tadros, from Irvine.
Asked whether she thought the contest might just be a way to capitalize on student achievements, she said “I’m pretty sure it is and I don’t think anybody minds.”
“Everyone is just happy to be a part of the process,” she said, “and learn along the way.”
Source: OC Register

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