SpaceX to hold com­pe­ti­tion for Hyper­loop pod

Los Angeles Times - - TECHNOLOGY - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga sa­man­tha.ma­sunaga@latimes.com

Al­most two years ago, Tesla Mo­tors Inc. and SpaceX Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk un­veiled a cu­ri­ous plan: a high-speed trans­porta­tion sys­tem that would shoot pas­sen­gers and freight be­tween Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco in a vac­uum tube at speeds of up to 760 mph.

Musk called it the Hyper­loop, re­leased his 58-page “al­pha” de­sign as an open­source doc­u­ment and left it at that. On Mon­day, the bil­lion­aire known for big ideas pushed one of his com­pa­nies back into the fore­front of the con­ver­sa­tion.

SpaceX, short for Space Ex­plo­ration Tech­nolo­gies Corp., said it is launch­ing a com­pe­ti­tion to build and de­sign pods for the Hyper­loop. Teams of univer­sity stu­dents and other in­de­pen­dent en­gi­neer­ing groups will sign up in Septem­ber, sub­mit fi­nal de­signs in De­cem­ber and then present their ideas in per­son in Jan­uary to a panel of univer­sity pro­fes­sors and engi­neers from SpaceX and Tesla Mo­tors, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Times.

A year from now, the teams and their pods will face off on a 1-mile test track to be built near SpaceX head­quar­ters in Hawthorne. SpaceX would also prob­a­bly con­struct a demon­stra­tion pod not el­i­gi­ble to win. No peo­ple will ride in any pod dur­ing the event.

Though it is ini­ti­at­ing the com­pe­ti­tion, SpaceX was clear about its in­volve­ment with the Hyper­loop.

“While we are not de­vel­op­ing a com­mer­cial Hyper­loop our­selves, we are in­ter­ested in help­ing to ac­cel­er­ate de­vel­op­ment of a func­tional Hyper­loop pro­to­type,” SpaceX said on its com­pe­ti­tion web­site.

In the last sev­eral months, a hand­ful of star­tups not af­fil­i­ated with SpaceX or Elon Musk have started work­ing on the pro­ject, in­clud­ing Hyper­loop Tech­nolo­gies Inc., which has leased ware­house space in down­town Los An­ge­les.

Ashlee Vance, au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fan­tas­tic Fu­ture,” said the com­pe­ti­tion didn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­di­cate Musk’s in­tent to join the Hyper­loop pro­ject.

“To me, it’s still more of a thought experiment for Elon,” he said. “I would be shocked with ev­ery­thing on his plate that he would be the guy to com­mer­cial­ize it.”

In un­veil­ing his Hyper­loop de­sign in Au­gust 2013, Musk said the idea stemmed from his dis­ap­point­ment with the Cal­i­for­nia bullet train pro­posal. More de­tails of the com­pe­ti­tion will be re­leased in Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments.

At least one school has al­ready signed on to the pro­ject.

Texas A&M Univer­sity will host the Jan­uary de­sign event, where teams will get feed­back from a panel and com­pa­nies can con­nect with teams they want to spon­sor. School fac­ulty prob­a­bly will ad­vise stu­dent teams, Texas A&M spokes­woman Magda Lagoudas said.

Ge­off Sped­ding, a USC pro­fes­sor of aerospace and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, said it’s fun to think about the con­cept.

“You don’t get any­where un­less you take a few risks,” he said.

The Hyper­loop also faces con­cerns about cost. In the Au­gust 2013 an­nounce­ment, Musk said the trans­porta­tion sys­tem could be con­structed for $6 bil­lion, a fig­ure sev­eral an­a­lysts thought was too low.

“I just don’t see how it can com­pete eco­nom­i­cally with the air­lines and the high­speed rail, or the au­to­mo­bile at the other end of the spec­trum,” said Lou Thompson, a trans­porta­tion con­sul­tant. “In this sense, the tech­nol­ogy is a very small part of the ques­tion. The real ques­tion is the cost to con­struct and op­er­ate.”

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