It Looks Like We've Got Ourselves a Good Old-Fashioned Hyperloop Build-Off

When Elon Musk published his plans for the ultra-high speed Hyperloop transit system almost exactly two years ago, he said he had no intention of building it. This spring, he changed his mind.


Now, at least two independent groups are planning to have Hyperloop tracks underway next year. It’s not exactly a competition yet, but it definitely makes things interesting. You may recall that back in June, Musk announced he would build a test track himself and host his own SpaceX-sponsored competition to design pods for his nascent transit system. The move represented a shift from his original statement that he was too busy to build the Hyperloop, and seemed to indicate that Musk wanted to get this show on the road–er, magnetic track.

Today, we got an update from another group pursuing the idea: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies—a crowd-funded contingent being engineered by more than 400 engineers who are working in exchange for stock. In a press release and a Wired story, HTT announced that it had added two new corporate partners to its group in an effort to break ground by 2016 on its own test track, this one between San Francisco and LA in a planned city called Quay Valley. The partners include AECOM, an engineering and construction firm with global reach, and Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum, a Pittsburgh-based vacuum technology. Meanwhile, HTT has its own design competition, run in conjunction with UCLA. The CEO of HTT described the news as “key to our success in breaking ground in 2016.”

Illustration for article titled It Looks Like We've Got Ourselves a Good Old-Fashioned Hyperloop Build-Off

HTT’s concept rendering.

If all goes as planned, both HTT and SpaceX will have test tracks underway next year, setting up interesting parallel construction projects between the two groups—which may even be joined by a third, seed-funded group led by a former SpaceX engineer called (confusingly) Hyperloop Technologies.

It’s tempting to view every press release and new development in the Hyperloop arena as evidence of imminent and total transit disruption. But it’s also important to note just how far off this technology is from viable use. After all, each of these companies is simply trying to build a test track—and their technology is nowhere near fully developed. In an in-depth cover story in July, Popular Science noted how many mathematical and engineering kinks need to be ironed out of the practical design for the technology—not to mention its funding. “The hyperloop’s bearings, like its motors, will need to be invented almost from scratch,” wrote James Vlahos in the sobering piece.

To give some added perspective to today’s news, keep in mind that HTT is saying that it will break ground next year in a development that doesn’t really exist yet. This planned city, called Quay Valley, is being re-zoned for residential development after being tied up in contentious water rights litigation for years. Quay Valley’s test track will theoretically be used for transit within the town, and will only go 200mph—rather than the 750mph spec’d by Musk.


A bit more perspective: Musk described his own plan to build a test track not as an effort to build a full Hyperloop, but to “help accelerate development” within other companies. The design competition he is hosting deals only with the human-scale pods. In fact, SpaceX will make the mile-long track available to any private company that wants to use it.

So while we’ve now got two groups planning to build Hyperloop test tracks at the same time, probably in the same state, it won’t exactly be a 21st century space race just yet. Still, it’ll be exciting to watch the two test tracks take shape over the next few years—and if a third or fourth enter into the picture, all the better.


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Annalee Newitz

This sort of reminds me of plans for a space elevator, which always rely on a technological breakthrough with carbon nanotube wires that hasn’t happened yet — and may never happen.