You’ve probably seen the headlines.
Something like, “Pittsburgh to Chicago in 30 minutes? It could happen thanks to a futuristic transportation system.”
It’s called the hyperloop, which to be fair does sound like something from Blade Runner or Westworld, but in reality it’s a serious idea to make travel faster, easier and safer than ever before.
And if you think something like that won’t get off the ground in your lifetime, there are a lot of people trying to prove you wrong.
This weekend, a team of students working on hyperloop technology at Carnegie Mellon University will debut their pod to the public. The event will also feature a virtual reality simulation that imagines what a ride in a pod would be like.
Karthik Chandrashekaraiah, the engineering project lead, said a functional, full-scale hyperloop is “going to happen sooner than you think.”
What is the hyperloop?
Imagine a tube that’s several feet in diameter and elevated above the ground.
Now picture a bullet-shaped vessel carrying about 30 people moving at more than 700 mph through that hollow cylinder. Instead of screaming, the passengers are chatting or sipping coffee.
It may be hard to envision, but that’s the hyperloop as conceptualized by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, who discussed the idea in public in 2012 and published a paper on it the next year.
To move the technology forward without being directly involved, Musk’s SpaceX announced a Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2015, which allowed teams working on the technology to try their half-scale pods on a test track in California.
Anshuman Kumar founded CMU’s team that year as a graduate student, and they competed against more than 120 teams in the design leg of the competition in January 2016.
Last month, SpaceX brought more than two dozens of those teams, including CMU’s, to California to test their pods and measure several aspects of performance from speed to safety. CMU’s team placed in the top ten for design and construction.
“The concept is really, really interesting,” Chandrashekaraiah, a mechanical engineer, said. “There are already a lot of modes of transportation, right? This mode of transportation is completely unique.”
Here’s the basic idea, as explained by Chandrashekaraiah: “You travel inside a depressurized tube,” he said, a low-friction environment that allows the levitating pod to move through at incredible speeds.
“You can even cross the speed of sound with that kind of transport,” he said.
Hyperloop technology is not quite there yet. During the January competition, MIT’s pod managed to levitate in the vacuum tube but didn’t come close to the speed it was designed to reach, 250 mph.
Warr, a team from Munich, won the honor for fastest pod last month. Theirs traveled down the track at around 58 mph.
As Digital Trends reported, that’s a big accomplishment: “An unnamed SpaceX employee (none were available for official comments) said there was an expectation that the pods would have some difficulty simply moving down the track at all, let alone traveling more than 50 miles an hour.”
Already, there are multiple companies — four, per the LA Times — working full-time to bring the hyperloop to life, including Hyperloop One and Arrivo.
Hyperloop One is holding its own competition. Unlike SpaceX’s, it’s not focused on engineering. Rather, Hyperloop One asked municipalities to convince the company to build a hyperloop in their area.
One of the semi-finalists is the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, whose Midwest Connect proposal imagines a hyperloop route from Chicago to Pittsburgh (“the emerging Silicon Valley of the East,” the plan states).
“Despite the prominence of these cities, there are no direct highway or passenger rail connections across the corridor,” William Murdock, executive director of the commission, wrote in the proposal. “A Hyperloop connection would not be creating a redundant surface connection, it would be forging a new connection.”
As Chandrashekaraiah pointed out, a number of places including Dubai are already working on hyperloop feasibility studies while companies are promising full-scale hyperloops in the next decade.
Even after a rough year, Hyperloop One is still aiming to move cargo by 2020 and humans by 2021. Brogan BamBrogan, a Hyperloop One co-founder who left under unpleasant circumstances to form Arrivo, told The Verge his company is already in talks with partners in the U.S. to build hyperloops.
Chandrashekaraiah estimated that “within five or six years” there will be some sort of transport happening via hyperloop.
Around 50 people are on CMU’s student-run team; the majority are engineers, more than a dozen are on the business side and others work on design.
“There were many challenges, which the whole team faced,” Chandrashekaraiah said. One was to “come up with the system, which will actually work on full-scale hyperloop.”
There are four key components of CMU’s pod: levitation, airframe, stability and braking. The airframe, for example, was created from carbon fibre and has an incredibly low aerodynamic drag, as the team explains on its site. The levitation system allows the pod to move at up to 220 mph “with the minimal resistance to its motion at all times.”
“I would say it’s probably the safest mode of transport out there,” Chandrashekaraiah said. But knowing that the idea of traveling in a tube may be a frightening prospect to some, he said the pod was designed with the experience in mind, as well.
“You’ll have display monitors that you can see outside,” he said. It will basically feel like a flight.
Benjamin Martin, the team’s business lead, said it’s his side’s job to work on marketing, operations, communication, procurement of parts and outreach support. Essentially, spreading the gospel of hyperloop.
“Everyone almost always think it’s really cool,” he said of reactions to the project.
And why wouldn’t they? As Martin said, with a hyperloop, there’s a “potential to, say, wake up in Pittsburgh and work in New York City.”
“With the technology you could do that,” Martin said. “That’s something that could really revolutionize many people’s way of life.”
Several members of the team stressed the interdisciplinary cooperation that makes the project possible. D’Souza, Gustafson and Martin — all first year MBAs — came on board after seeing a presentation about what the hyperloop team was doing.
“We said, ‘Hey, we want to be a part of that,'” Martin said.
“It’s one (of), if not the only, interdisciplinary projects here at CMU with almost every school involved,” the team’s Co-Creative Director Thomas Kelly, who worked on the VR simulation, wrote in an email. “And for us one of the first steps in introducing a new technology is immersing people in a story, illustrating to them how this affects and often enriches their everyday lives.”
Introducing new technologies is not a foreign idea in Pittsburgh. The community has by and large embraced tech like robotics and autonomous vehicles as a part of the city’s future. The team wants these interested people to come to events like the pod reveal and help get the word out, said Erika Gustafson, a member of the business team who focuses on marketing.
“We really do want the community, not just CMU, but the Pittsburgh community as a whole to really feel like this is their baby,” Lauren D’Souza, the team’s marketing lead, said. “Anyway we can answer questions and make people feel committed and involved in it, we want to make that happen as much as possible.”
Martin echoed that the future of the project is going to depend on community involvement. Getting people to think, “I really wish I had one of those.”
See and ‘ride’ in the pod
On Sunday, the CMU team will display their pod for the public, talk about the project’s history and potential impact and debut a VR simulation that can be viewed using an Ocular headset.
To create the simulation, the team enlisted students from CMU’s drama school.
A rendering from the hyperloop VR
“The hyperloop VR experience is our attempt to make an accessible way to understand the impact of the hyperloop beyond the impressive engineering which has been poured into the project,” John Walker Moosbrugger, who serves as co-creative director, said by email.
“Thomas and I are both scenic designers in the School of Drama and as such tend to approach such projects as story first,” he wrote. “That is to say that all of the choices we make should help to tell the story of the play, or in this case the hyperloop. Therefore the first problem was to find the story that made the hyperloop important.”
That story can be boiled down to a quote from the experience: “Make Two Worlds One,” the ability to connect people across long distances.
Kelly said via email that providing this initial experience is one of his favorite parts of working on the project.
“Thinking that the first time someone is asked, ‘When was the the first time you rode on a hyperloop?’ they’ll say, ‘I remember experiencing the ride at Carnegie Mellon,'” he wrote. “It’s also knowing that everything we do might touch future generations, not only with technology but with story.”
Kelly and Moosbrugger worked with students from a number of disciplines to “build the mechanisms to deliver that experience,” Moosbrugger wrote. The team included students who are studying business, drama, engineering and computer science.
“Carnegie Mellon is actually a really wonderful place to take on a project like this because of this vast array of talent,” Moosbrugger wrote. He also said that, although there’s no faculty advisor, a number of faculty members have provided encouragement and support.
Just as important are the team’s sponsors, Gustafuson said, who make the project possible.
A rendering from CMU's hyperloop VR simulation
“This is one of the best projects I’ve worked on until now,” Chandrashekaraiah, who graduated in 2016, said of the hyperloop. “There’s so much to learn.” He plans to continue work on this kind of project in the future.
D’Souza said it’s been “eye-opening … being able to come to a place like CMU and get in on the ground floor of a technology that really, truly will change the way the world operates.”
“You can come to school and do amazing things like this,” she said.