Classic 20th century science fiction writers imagined today as a hyper-futuristic world of flying cars, androids and off-planet colonies. Futurist Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, creator of the Tesla and the real-life Tony Stark, has his own ideas on how to make this sort of reality possible. One of these is a groundbreaking technology that can send a person from Austin to Dallas in under 20 minutes.
This complex technology, known as Hyperloop, propels a levitating train car through an underground, low-pressure tunnel. Announced in a 2013 white paper, Musk hopes it can solve many modern transportation problems, including speed, safety and sustainability.
The long tube that the Hyperloop pod would travel down is what’s known as a vacuum, meaning it lacks any air, so air friction would not exist—but if the pod springs a leak, it’s very likely each passenger would die in seconds.
A NASA feasibility analysis of the Hyperloop concept last year analyzed Musk’s invention from a critical level, and they saw these potentially catastrophic possibilities early.
“The biggest issues with hyperloop technology are speed and scale,” the analysis said. “It is still unclear how to create a prototype that verifies the safety of the technology and allows testing of all necessary components.”
Working with SpaceX, a proposed solution is to use Hyperloop for cargo transportation only in its early years and expand upon that once safety is ensured. But for this process to even begin, it will need large-scale funding that Musk alone cannot provide.
Ex-Amazon Fresh coordinator Brittain Ladd said he hopes cooperation between SpaceX, Amazon and a state could lead to the acceleration of the project, provided a state is willing. For Ladd, the development of Hyperloop and Amazon’s current search for a second headquarters location could be knocked out with one stone, leading to a positive impact above ground as well.
“If Texas were to try and lure Amazon’s HQ2 to the state, what if the first thing they announce together is a high-speed rail station within HQ2?,” Ladd said. “If Amazon and the State were to work together and say ‘What if we actually built a Hyperloop from Laredo, El Paso, the border crossing, and instead of shipping on trucks, we’ll take them to Dallas.’ Imagine the great impact on the road and the environment.”
To further progress Hyperloop’s technology, Musk enlists the help of American students. In 2015, he started an annual Hyperloop Pod Competition, in which students from across the US compete to make the fastest, safest model of a Hyperloop pod to run on SpaceX’s test track in California. University of Texas electrical engineering professor Alex Claudel advises UT’s largest team, who have taken to calling themselves Guadaloop.
“So far all we could demonstrate was that it was working in a vacuum,” Claudel said. “We want to explore air bearing technology, we haven’t tested at high speeds.”
At last year’s competition, Guadaloop won the innovation award for their innovative use of air bearings. Texas’ other team, named 512 Hyperloop, made it to the final round but did not win an award. This year, the teams are shaking things up by working together as one group, and though growing pains are inevitable, they believe they can work best together.