A few hundred years ago, if you wanted to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles, your best bet would be to take a horse-drawn wagon. The journey would take you days of arduous jostling over uneven terrain in the hot sun. Heading to Los Angeles meant you were probably going to stay in Los Angeles. Trains, cars and airplanes changed this landscape. Travel became possible, then accessible, then par for the course; but as the pace of the world and the way we interact has shifted over the past few decades, it seems that we’re ready for the next great shift in transportation. And Elon Musk (CEO, Tesla Motors and SpaceX) has a vision for it.
In 2013, Elon proposed the Hyperloop design: a super-fast vacuum tube system that will propel people from SF to LA in an hour and a half. This opens up a whole new world of commuting potential, allowing people to, say, live in Hollywood and work at Facebook – affordably. In order to get this admittedly ambitious project off the ground, Elon enlisted the combined brainpower of hundreds of university and high school students to develop designs for the Hyperloop pods. These teams will not only develop optimized technical specifications, but will also build working, scaled-down pod prototypes. These pods will be raced on a test track at SpaceX’s headquarters in June 2016, and the fastest and most resilient pod will be crowned the winning design.
As a Master of Engineering student in Materials Science and Engineering, I had the great opportunity to work as a Technical Liaison on the UC Berkeley Hyperloop Team (bLoop) over the past semester, culminating in a trip to Texas A&M University on January 29 – 30 to present the Final Design Package to judges from Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Each team at Design Weekend presented and discussed their design with roving judges, other students, and the general public. On Friday, bLoop presented to a panel of 10 experts, mostly technical engineers from the aerospace and automotive industries. We fielded questions and defended components of our design – of particularly interest was bLoop’s decision to use air bearings as a means of levitation within the Hyperloop tube, a more challenging but affordable alternative to the popular but pricey magnetic levitation technology.
The Design Weekend took place in A&M’s Field Stadium and was packed with a bustling crowd for the entirety of the two days. Over 20 countries were represented, with notables including an impressive team from Delft University of the Netherlands that took second place. Out of the 180 teams that presented at Design Weekend, 22 were selected to advance to the next phase of the competition. UC Berkeley’s bLoop was one of these, which means we will now have the opportunity to race our physical pod on the test track at SpaceX in June, going head to head with formidable opponents from other schools.
Right now, the Hyperloop is a dream, but at the Design Weekend, it started to feel a lot like a reality. A surprise visit from Elon Musk really drove that feeling home, as he talked about the innovation’s potential and the strength of the designs being presented. The atmosphere was electric, and I left feeling freshly inspired and excited. Tesla and SpaceX have managed to achieve in a short period of time what many would have called impossible two decades ago. At Design Weekend, it felt like we were on the cusp of yet another transportation breakthrough. Being part of this initiative was an opportunity to feel involved in a real, tangible, and ambitious engineering revolution. And beyond the technical ramifications, the Hyperloop concept shifts my own expectations for my future as well – suddenly the idea of living in Berkeley and commuting to LA to work sounds like a feasible five-year plan!