|An artists' rendering of a passenger concept for the Hyperloop. (Image source: Camilo Sanchez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)|
The next great mode of transportation might not be invented by a large corporation, it could be a team of students, or even a group of strangers on the Internet.
In 2012, when Elon Musk proposed creating a “fifth mode of transportation,” (the other four being cars, planes, trains, and boats), many dismissed it as a passing fancy at worst and a futurist pipe dream at best. Musk, best known in his roles as the CEO of electric auto company, Tesla, and SpaceX, the independent spacecraft company, has a penchant for announcing projects that sound more like the visions of an Isaac Asimov novel than practical. His many dream projects include colonizing mars, creating a system of underground tunnels for automobile traffic, and, most recently, creating a neurological link between humans and machines.
Musk called his idea for a new transportation system the Hyperloop. It would travel twice the speed of a plane (able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes), be immune to changes in weather, never have collisions, have low power consumption, and enough energy storage to operate for 24 hours a day. Musk envisions it as the ideal mode of transportation between cities 900 miles or less apart.
Engineers at Tesla and SpaceX got on it and in 2013 Musk released a 57-page white paper detailing an early design concept.
“When the California 'high-speed' rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” Musk wrote in the paper. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
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The basic concept of the Hyperloop is to send pods, containing passengers and/or cargo, through a tube. The tube would contain fans that create partial vaccuum inside to reduece wind resistance. By propelling the pods through a partial vacuum, using either air pressure, wheels, or some sort of electromagnetic system (similar to a bullet train's maglev system) theorists believe the Hyperloop could obtain supersonic speeds one day.
It all sounded like a nice thought experiment. Then Musk did something unexpected. In 2013 He announced that the Hyperloop would be open source and invited anyone who dared to try to come up with new iterations on the design to improve it and make the Hyperloop a reality.
Companies sprang up almost overnight – all aiming to make their version of the Hyperloop into a working, scalable system. Early this year Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One, arguably the most well-known of these companies, broke ground on DevLoop, a 1640-foot-long test track in the Nevada desert that it says will be the world’s only full-system and full-scale Hyperloop test site. The company is planning to launch full-scale tests of DevLoop sometime in 2017. Hyperloop One has also been meeting with U.S. Policymakers and transportation experts to discuss plans of Hyperloop routes throughout the United States.
There are now at least half a dozen companies vying to beat Musk to market with his own idea. In 2015 SpaceX announced it was building its own 1-mile-long Hyperloop test track at its facilities in Hawthorne, Calif. It also announced its Hyperloop Pod Competition – open to any participants around the world that wanted to take a crack at inventing the ideal Hyperloop pod. Out of 700 teams that submitted preliminary applications, 27 teams, many from prestigious schools such as MIT, NYU, and Technical University of Munich were eventually invited to physically test their designs in the competition held at SpaceX, the first half of which completed in January 2017.
In the end, if companies are shipping goods or transporting passengers through high-speed tubes one day, they may owe the innovation to students, not a large corporation.
The Team that Reddit Built
Of all the 27 teams there was only one non-student team, and only one team not sponsored by a university- Team rLoop – a group of engineers, designers, and DIY enthusiasts all brought together through the power of social media.