“Maximum speed with successful deceleration (i.e. without crashing).”
That’s it. That’s the sole criteria set out by SpaceX ahead of next month’s hyperloop competition at the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters. As of April, 24 teams from around the world have qualified for the race.
But “maximum speed” may be easier said than done for the Canadian entry into the contest, the University of Waterloo’s design team called Waterloop, since its pod barely moved during the official unveiling last week at its Waterloo, Ontario campus. They’re working out the kinks.
On Friday, the team of more than 70 undergraduate students revealed their newly designed pod for the competition in front of an excited crowd of more than a hundred people. It’s sleek and black—one photographer at the event told me it resembled a coffin—and to me it looks more like a bullet than a typical passenger train car.
After nearly an hour’s delay due to technical problems, supporters had to settle for watching it scrape, creak, and rattle along a makeshift track in the middle of the reception hall on campus. It ground to a halt after a few feet.
Team captain and applied physics student Jake Malliaros was undaunted by the less-than-stellar debut of the pod, dubbed Goose II.
“It was great to see our supporters and fans,” he told me after the demonstration. The magnetic wheels and the air levitation system were not in sync, he told me, meaning the fact the pod failed to move the length of the track was a good thing—fail-safes designed to prevent a catastrophic crash were working.
“I think this is a step forward towards competition,” he said.
In 2013, SpaceX founder Elon Musk released a white paper detailing his plans for the hyperloop. The early design called for a 2.3-metre-diameter steel tube that operates in a partial vacuum. The pods would use air pressure to carry passengers or cargo at incredibly high speeds on a cushion of air, unencumbered by friction. Musk famously described it as “a cross between a rail gun, the concord, and an air hockey table.”
To jumpstart the development of this technology, SpaceX announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2015, with the goal of building a half-scale pod within a year. Musk had made a similar move in 2014 when he made all the patents for his electric Tesla vehicles available to the public in a bid to get electric cars out of the testing phase and out on the roads faster.
Musk has a reputation for big talk. Just last week he received some flack for tweeting he had received “verbal approval” to build a hyperloop tunnel connecting New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Several state officials told Motherboard at the time that they had no idea what the tech mogul was talking about.
Many, like Malliaros, remain enthusiastic about its potential. Capable of reaching Mach 1 (roughly 1,200 km/hr), a hyperloop could theoretically transport passengers from Toronto to Montreal in half an hour. And it could link New York City with DC in about 29 minutes.
“I think it would change the way people think about living,” said Malliaros. “These places that are very far [away] would now be right next door.”
More than 1,000 teams expressed interest in the hyperloop project, but only 30 were ultimately selected to travel to California to showcase their designs at the first competition in January 2016.
One year later, 27 teams returned to compete in the test track runs. Three managed to complete all nine of the test runs, proving that the Waterloo team isn’t alone in trying to overcome the challenges presented by the technology.
Waterloop’s first pod, Goose I, did not compete in that test run, but the team did travel to California to showcase the design, and they are in the process of qualifying Goose II for the upcoming race in August.
Goose II is significantly more streamlined than its predecessor and it is significantly lighter (the model weighs 160 kilograms, or about 352 pounds, down from 280 kg, or 617 lb). The full-scale pod would be about five meters long and have an interior diameter of about two meters, and would be capable of carrying about 20 people, Malliaros said.
Faculty adviser Serhiy Yarusevych, associate professor in mechanical and mechatronics engineering, told me he was skeptical when the students first approached him two years ago to ask for his help.
Video: University of Waterloo
“There’s an invisible threshold associated with such projects because if you know it can be done, people are much more likely to achieve the goal,” he said. “If they’ve never seen it done before, there’s that doubt.
“Today I have much less [skepticism],” he said.
Getting the public to climb into an enclosed tube with no windows that moves at nearly the speed of sound may not be as difficult as it sounds, added Yarusevych. “There is certainly a risk assessment issue and public buy-in, [but] it’s similar to the risk of flying in an aircraft,” he noted.
While the technology has yet to be perfected, Yarusevych said perhaps the biggest barrier now is the development of appropriate infrastructure—tunnels, tracks, and stations.
That issue is one familiar to residents of Waterloo. Workers in the high-tech sector have long sought reliable, all-day passenger train service between the region and Toronto, but are still waiting. In March, the federal government announced more than $750 million in funding for infrastructure upgrades, but two-way, all-day train service is still about seven years away.
While Musk is credited with popularizing the concept of the hyperloop, it’s largely been left to teams of students and engineers like Waterloop to turn the vision into a reality through the development of the pods. For these Waterloo students, it’s all extracurricular on top of their full course load and co-op work terms.
“That’s the level of dedication that is a pleasure to work with,” said Yarusevych. “There have been litres and gallons of coffee consumed, and a lot of sleepless nights.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.