THERE’S A FUTURE we’ve seen in science fiction for so long it almost seems like the past: people whisked from one place to another inside tube trains that crisscross the landscape.
But imagine you could board one and travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a half-hour. As you sit down in an engineless pod the size of a bus, your seat remembers you and adjusts the entertainment settings. The pod accelerates to 760 miles per hour, a velocity made possible by the near-vacuum inside the tube. There’s no engine noise—the nearest thing to an engine is the tube, a smart tube that measures speed and location. The pod has been pressurized to minimize the G forces effects on a passenger; the trip is as comfortable as a flight. All of this is solar-powered.
There won’t even be time for beverage service.
This is the dream billionaire inventor Elon Musk unleashed on Aug. 12, 2013, when he posted a white paper on the website of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX. Titled “Hyperloop Alpha,” the paper contained notes toward what Musk called the fifth mode of transport—the other four being planes, trains, automobiles and boats. California’s proposal for a high-speed rail project had offended Musk’s sense of the state that has historically dreamed up America’s future. After skewering the proposed system (“one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world”), Musk issued an open-source design challenge: a 28-passenger solar-powered pod capable of levitating through a system of tubes almost at the speed of sound, with a one-way ticket price of $20 and a total building cost estimated at $6 billion, less than a tenth of the budget for California’s high-speed rail project.
Reactions at the time ranged from excitement to skepticism to outright disbelief—Musk was even accused of sabotaging the high-speed rail project for profit, despite his statement that he had no plans to develop the Hyperloop commercially. Musk stepped back, essentially giving the field to the host of students, engineers and entrepreneurs who almost immediately answered the challenge. Musk spent the next two years tweeting support for any opensource Hyperloop developments. He remains close to members of both startups currently in the lead to produce the first working Hyperloop—Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HTT, and Hyperloop Technologies Inc., or HTI. But on Jan. 15th of this year, Musk shook up the field when he announced plans to build a Hyperloop test track and hold a contest in summer 2016 at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The challenge? Create a functioning, half-scale pod. Specs for the test track’s tube were released in October, and in November, 318 teams from 162 universities and 16 countries submitted their final pod designs. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will be the keynote speaker at the first event, a Hyperloop design weekend for the finalists at Texas A&M University on January 13th, 2016.
Why would Elon Musk open-source an idea this valuable, while also leaving the door open to step in himself? Musk was unavailable for comment but his position hasn’t changed since he published Hyperloop Alpha: He’s busy. In addition to being the CEO and chief technology officer of SpaceX, he is also the CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of the board at SolarCity, a company founded by his cousins in 2006 with an idea of his and his blessing. Historically, Musk stays close to the ideas he gives away and it’s rumored that he will at some point choose one Hyperloop startup or another, and back it by lending his name and joining the board. But Musk is unwilling to be portrayed as having a favorite.
For now Elon Musk, it seems, is calling his invention home to see what it’s become. In the process, he’s joining what may become the biggest tech free-for-all in American history—one he started. But not all of those interested in making the Hyperloop work are answering the contest’s call. The Hyperloop Movement, as some of its unaffiliated members refer to themselves, is officially bigger than the man who started it.
IN HIS SANTA MONICA CONFERENCE ROOM, Quay Hays of GROW Holdings is laying out the plan for Quay Valley, the city he hopes will be a model for California’s future. It sounds, at first, like any other affluent California community: retail space, resort hotels, a winery, a spa. Where Quay Valley stands out is its plan to be solar-powered with extremely low water use. With a town of 26,000 networked smart homes and apartments built green from the ground up, Hays hopes to give 75,000 residents the eco-friendly lifestyle that critics of clean energy say is impossible. “There have been advances in green design and smart growth over the years, and the idea was, put all these things together in one place,” says Hays, a former publisher and film executive whose first job was booking punk and new wave acts for the Greek Theatre in the 1980s. His first attempt to launch Quay Valley was thwarted by litigation over water rights and the financial crisis of 2008; the new plan is to break ground on the site, a 7,200-acre expanse halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometime in 2016. When that happens, the world will be watching, and not just for the promised sustainability—Quay Valley also plans to feature the world’s first working Hyperloop, built by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies at an estimated cost of $100 million to $150 million.
Dirk Ahlborn, HTT’s chief executive, wants little to do with the SpaceX contest. Ahlborn founded HTT three months after Musk’s “Hyperloop Alpha” paper hit the Internet, and while he maintains a friendly relationship with Musk, he calls the contest a distraction. “A half-scale model is of no use to us now, and so their specs are also not relevant to us,” Ahlborn says. His company is focused on Quay Valley. “We are past the prototyping phase and have developed our own proprietary technology,” Ahlborn tells me. “I know you need to portray this as a race, but I don’t see it as a race. We’re not competing with them. Our competitors are other forms of transportation. If it were a race, it would be over.”
A German-born entrepreneur, Ahlborn made a small fortune founding alternative energy companies in Italy, moved to the U.S., and lost that fortune shortly after. At one point, he found himself waiting tables to make ends meet while pursuing another startup. He took a lesson in unreliability from that tumble, and in 2012 he founded JumpStart Fund, an online startup incubator that uses a crowd-sourcing tech-hub model. It’s the model used by HTT, a scrappy, fast-growing operation of just under 500 people who initially earn only equity in exchange for at least 10 hours a week, leaving them free to hold down day jobs. HTT has been characterized as “the Bad News Bears” of the Hyperloop movement, but Ahlborn has pulled off a string of increasingly impressive partnerships. In 2013, HTT partnered with the engineering software developer Ansys, which ran simulation models for the fluid dynamics of the Hyperloop. In 2014, HTT teamed up with UCLA’s Suprastudio master’s in architecture program, which designed the “human factor” of the HTT user experience, from pods to station architecture to boarding and ticketing. In August of this year, HTT announced partnerships with international engineering giant Aecom and Oerlikon, the world’s oldest vacuum technology—signs the company may be looking to expand beyond Quay Valley. HTT also began the permitting process in Kings County, Calif., where Quay Valley will be located; these will be the first permits ever issued for a Hyperloop. Designed to carry both people and freight, The Quay Valley Hyperloop has a projected top speed of more than 300 mph, significantly slower than Musk’s dream train. But the short track will demonstrate the potential of smaller suburban Hyperloops—a necessary early step. And it’s designed to create more energy than it uses, thanks to a mix of solar cells along the tubes, wind turbines along the supporting pylons and kinetic energy generated by the braking process. HTT plans to sell this energy back to the grid, creating a mass-transit system that’s also a power company. Ahlborn declined to offer any specifics on the technology, but officials at both Aecom and Oerlikon said they had vigorously vetted HTT’s plans before approving their partnerships, and they are now actively involved in all development.
Though HTT and Quay Valley seem poised to win the Hyperloop race, Quay Hays sees it differently. “Why does there have to be just one Hyperloop company?” he asks. “Why can’t there be many?”
HTT IS OFTEN CONFUSED WITH ITS MOST VISIBLE COMPETITOR, HTI, which is a source of frustration for Ahlborn; HTI was formed eight months after HTT. “They’re pretty smart people,” Ahlborn says. “They could have called it something else.”
Both points are inarguable. HTI was founded by Shervin Pishevar of Sherpa Ventures, a close friend of Musk and early investor in Uber. His co-founder, engineer Brogan BamBrogan, formerly of SpaceX, is now HTI’s chief technology officer. “I went to Shervin’s place in Napa prepared to say no,” says BamBrogan, laughing. “But his plans for Hyperloop—Hyperloops underwater!—blew me away.” The company’s board is something of a Silicon Valley fantasy-football team: David O. Sacks, Jim Messina, Peter Diamandis, Joe Lonsdale —and most recently Emily White, the former chief operating officer of Snapchat.
In June, Pishevar found his CEO in Rob Lloyd, the former co-president of Cisco. Lloyd had spent 20 years building the infrastructure for the World Wide Web, eventually leading a team of 25,000 engineers around the globe. He left Cisco shortly after being passed over for CEO. Lloyd, who was once told that no one would ever pay bills online, feels uniquely suited to run a company like HTI, whose product inspires disbelief. When Pishevar described his idea for a network of tubes crisscrossing the country and the world, Lloyd saw his work on the Internet’s infrastructure as a map to this fifth mode of transportation. “With information moving faster,” Lloyd says, “things have to move faster, too. It’s like the pattern of moving a digital bit, applied to a physical bit.” Freight at—or closer to—the speed of information. A literal Internet of things.
HTI is raising $80 million for its next round of expansion. Pishevar, Lloyd and BamBrogan now regularly speak about what they call the Hyperloop’s Kitty Hawk moment: when the first working pod shoots down a full-size tube. HTI recently formed a relationship with the developer of a high-speed rail project from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. That company, China Railway International USA, is a partnership between the Chinese government’s railway company and XpressWest, a private American venture. Vegas, then, could be HTI’s Kitty Hawk. And given the players involved, it’s also an entry point to the potentially enormous Chinese market.
If both HTT’s and HTI’s Hyperloops are successful, Quay Hays’s notion of multiple Hyperloop companies could come true, potentially leaving us with a national version of the New York City subway system, built in the early 1900s by two competing private developers, who each used different train cars. To this day, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is forced to buy two different types of subway car. A national network of Hyperloops could be stymied if pods are unable to cross from one system of tubes to another, potentially sabotaging the game-changing efficiency that Elon Musk imagined in Hyperloop Alpha. But we’re only two years into this idea, and despite the rampant speculation that surrounds Musk’s involvement, it would be a mistake to count him out.
THE SPACEX COMPETITION GUIDELINES STATE THAT NOhuman or animal of any kind can be placed inside the test pods. It’s a standard safety precaution at this early stage, but the passenger ban underscores a serious public perception problem. Assuming the Hyperloop movement overcomes the regulatory, land-use and technological obstacles, it still has to persuade the public to get on board in the literal sense. Hyperloop Alpha contained a pod rendering that resembled a bullet with seating pitched at a semi-reclined angle: a claustrophobic high-tech bobsled. Other concerns became apparent. If a tube were to rupture or braking mechanisms were to fail, the pods could go from bullet trains to actual bullets in the world’s largest gun barrel. Worse, if the tubes were somehow crushed or blocked, it could be like tying the barrel in the act of firing. The initial excitement for a fifth mode of transportation had hit a roadblock.
The need for an appealing and assuring user experience is not lost on the Hyperloop movement. HTT has recently collaborated with UCLA’s Suprastudio Architecture Program, which matches corporate partners with teams of top architecture students and faculty. In contrast with Musk’s SpaceX contest, which invited hundreds of teams to create a half-scale pod, Dirk Ahlborn’s HTT posed a challenge to a team of 25 at UCLA: create solutions for the Hyperloop user experience around a central technology that does not yet exist. Built into that challenge is the perceived impossibility of the technology. Architect Craig Hodgetts, the faculty leader of the Suprastudio team, describes their aim as “changing the emotional context” for the Hyperloop. Marta Nowak, another faculty member, puts it this way: “We wanted to change it from a ride no one wants to get on to a ride no one wants to get off.”
As early test cases were discussed, a student named Yayun Zhou mentioned her grandmother in China as someone who would never set foot in a capsule capable of traveling near the speed of sound. Hodgetts asked for a picture of her grandmother, taped it to the studio wall and asked: “How do we get Yayun’s grandmother to ride the Hyperloop?” The elderly Chinese woman became the project’s muse.
A user experience suitable for Yayun’s grandmother required a mix of urban planning, architecture, engineering, business marketing and even show business—Hodgetts brought in guests like Larry Gertz, the legendary Disney theme-park designer, and Syd Mead, the visual futurist who designed iconic vehicles and robots in “Star Trek,” “Tron” and “Blade Runner.” Suprastudio’s students suggested pods pressurized like airplanes to reduce G forces and, to make up for a lack of windows, landscape simulations projected on the insides of the pods—forests, starry skies, fields of grass. At the conclusion of the program, Ahlborn brought Yayun Zhou and some of her classmates onto the HTT team.
WHILE THE UCLA SUPRASTUDIO TEAM WAS ADDRESSING the user experience for HTT, students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were putting the finishing touches on a 1/24th-scale Hyperloop, complete with a magnetic induction coil and a 3-D printed pod. On May 4th, their tiny pod accelerated forward in the tube, exactly as they’d hoped. Later, the students shot a six-second video and posted it on YouTube.
The video went up shortly after the SpaceX competition was announced. “Suddenly our YouTube video was getting all these hits,” says Emad Jassim, the director of undergraduate programs for the university’s department of mechanical science and engineering (MechSE). “But we were right here the whole time.”
The Illinois team enters the SpaceX contest with a strong competitive edge. This is its fourth Hyperloop design project, the first dating to fall 2013, and the Hyperloop is now a part of the MechSE curriculum. The team has assembled an interdisciplinary network of faculty from aeronautical engineering, thermal dynamics, mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and software, and two of the team members have interned at SpaceX, including team leader Zak Lee-Richerson, who, with his blond hair and motorcycle jacket, looks ready to play himself in the movie about his life. According to faculty leader and professor Carlos Pantano-Rubino, the final cost of the test pod is still undetermined, another obstacle on the road to building something that does not yet exist. But it helps that the project’s corporate sponsor, Shell, has some of the deepest pockets in the world.
The Illinois team is divided into five groups: four focused on distinct aspects of the pod design, and a fifth group, focused on safety and reliability, which has one member on each of the other groups. Senior team leader Jake Haseltine describes the safety team’s mission as the prevention of “branching failures”—one problem that turns into two, which each turn into several more until catastrophe strikes across systems. Haseltine’s biggest fear going into the competition? “We’re afraid another team would go first and damage the tube,” he said. “And that after a year’s work, we wouldn’t be able to present our pod. So we’re hoping to go first.”
“Branching failures” is the easiest way to characterize the challenge facing Musk’s test track. The competition guidelines say it will be designed to accommodate pods with different kinds of magnetic and air bearings, passing just millimeters from the ground. None of the competition pods will have had a test flight in a tube before this; failures are likely, even probable. The tube is a smart tube, capable of communicating with the pod’s operating system, much more delicate than an insensate subway tunnel. Even slight dings could compromise the bearings of the next pod. Musk’s competition could show the world a multitude of Hyperloop pod designs, or it could be the day we find out how much time and money it takes to repair a tube.
THE SPACEX HYPERLOOP CHALLENGE IS, for now, an old-fashioned contest in the spirit of the annual competitions between engineering students who create and race low-carbon-emission Formula One race-car prototypes. Musk has even said he hopes his challenge leads to Hyperloop races. SpaceX’s competition site states clearly they have no plans to develop the Hyperloop commercially, and sources close to SpaceX say Musk is content to act as a Hyperloop evangelist who also happens to be the idea’s author. But by the end of the competition, the SpaceX test track will have recorded data from all of the test pods—that’s how the smart tube works. If SpaceX changes its mind and decides to create its own system, it would have a proprietary tube able to use several kinds of pods—a potential end run around the compatibility issue raised by Quay Hays’s notion of two or more Hyperloops. Playing host to the competition could put SpaceX in a strong position to proceed commercially.
It would be easy, then, to think we’re watching the creation of a fifth form of transportation, or a Silicon Valley disruption of mass transit, or a startup pissing match over the brass ring of Elon Musk’s funding and approval. But there’s more at stake for Musk. By writing Hyperloop Alpha, Musk was essentially asking America, “Do you really want to be the country that spends $68 billion to build the slowest high-speed train in the world?” To ask that question, Musk had to give the Hyperloop idea away. 2016 may be the year he gets his reply.
Alexander Chee is a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author of “The Queen of the Night,” to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2016.