They may have been soundly beaten by Germans, but the Canadian runners-up at an Elon Musk-sponsored hyperloop competition can at least take heart that their vehicle was the only entry capable of levitating on air.
The hyperloop is a futuristic means of transportation that is essentially a very, very fast subway. Billionaire Musk first proposed the idea of a hyperloop in 2013, and has since been exploring the technology through his companies Tesla and SpaceX. By hovering off the rails and travelling through low-pressure vacuum tunnels, the ultimate goal is for hyperloop pods to travel faster than the speed of sound — and to connect major cities such as Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
Paradigm Hyperloop, a collaboration between students from Boston’s Northeastern University and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Memorial University, essentially showed up to the California race with a giant hoverboard. While other competitors used magnets to keep their vehicles suspended above the test track, the Paradigm pod was able to stay aloft thanks to a system of compressed air raising the vehicle off the track.
Its design is akin to a reverse-air hockey table and dramatically reduces the power needed to propel the vehicle to high speeds.
“History has been made this day by proving the air bearing concept,” wrote the team in a tweet Sunday.
While air has long been used to lift heavy objects in industrial settings, Sunday was the first time it had been done at high speeds. The technology is different than a hovercraft, which requires an inflated skirt to be in contact with the ground.
Known officially as the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, the race was held Sunday at the headquarters of SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif., which hosts a 1.3 km-long above-ground hyperloop tunnel. Entrants were required to build a pod capable of holding a human dummy and travelling under its own power through the tunnel. Competitors also needed to be able to stop their pod before it ploughed out the other side of the test track.
As the official rules state, the winner would be crowned based on a single criterion: Going as fast as possible “without crashing.”
The Paradigm pod vehicle topped out at 101 km/h in the test track.
The peak speed of a German team, however, was an incredible 324 km/h — approximately equal to the top speed of a NASCAR stock car, but still 900 km/h short of breaking the speed of sound.
Nevertheless, the German pod, built by a team from the Technical University of Munich, attained the fastest speed yet travelled in a hyperloop.
Earliest this month, the California startup Hyperloop One tested their latest pod design in a vacuum tube test track. In that instance, the vehicle was only able to hit 309 km/h.
After the competition, an elated Musk took to Twitter to surmise that the technology might advance to the point of pods being capable of breaking the speed of sound, even in the short SpaceX test track. “Very high accel/decel needed,” he wrote.
Paradigm was the only North American team to advance to the final stage of the SpaceX contest. A third-place competitor, Swissloop, came from Switzerland’s main technical university.
Last year, Musk also founded The Boring Company, a tunneling company that he hopes will one day be responsible for building a network of traffic-slaying hyperloop tunnels under Los Angeles.
This week, The Boring Company was granted approval to build a 2.6 km test tunnel that would start at SpaceX headquarters and run underneath the surrounding city of Hawthorne.