SpaceX fires up design contest for Hyperloop passenger pods

The space transport company of billionaire Elon Musk is finally throwing itself into the development of the futuristic tech for terrestrial travel.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read

SpaceX doesn't want to build the entire Hyperloop. But CEO Elon Musk is interested in spurring development of the passenger pods that will travel inside it. SpaceX

Elon Musk has finally deigned to get his hands dirty with the Hyperloop.

SpaceX, Musk's rocket science company, plans to hold a competition "geared toward university students and independent engineering teams" to develop the first prototype passenger pods for Musk's futuristic but Earth-bound tube transport system, according to documents seen by CNET.

The Hyperloop -- whenever it gets built, and if it works as envisioned -- would transport people at speeds nearing 800 miles an hour in pressurized pods pushed through tubes elevated above the ground. It has generated immense interest worldwide, but Musk, the CEO of both SpaceX and electric-car maker Tesla Motors, has largely kept himself and his companies distanced from the project.

Until today. SpaceX, which may build a passenger pod prototype of its own for demonstration purposes, will develop a one-mile-long test track outside its Hawthorne, Calif., rocket plant for testing the pods. SpaceX hopes to have the track built and ready to host the competition over a weekend in June 2016.

The initiative is not to be confused with a separate and unrelated project from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a group of engineers and entrepreneurs who are working to build a five-mile test track of their own in central California and who have been crowdfunding Hyperloop development thus far. Because Musk stated early on that he wants the Hyperloop to be an open-source project, he has not stopped others from taking the idea, and its name, and trying to turn it into a reality.

"Neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies," SpaceX notes in documents outlining the competition. "While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype."

In August 2013, Musk issued a 58-page paper dedicated to his vision for the Hyperloop and how it could revolutionize terrestrial transportation. In January of this year, he had hinted at a closer involvement of his own when he said he was interested in developing a test track, possibly in Texas, but that idea was nixed.

The Hyperloop is a radical idea fashioned as a technology that could leapfrog high-speed rail and usher in ground transportation that exceeds the speeds of commercial airplanes. But without significant testing, prototyping and other development measures, the Hyperloop exists only on paper. Musk -- flush with around $12 billion, mostly in Tesla and SpaceX stock -- has the cash, track record and some of the world's most brilliant engineers to start pushing the project forward, but apparently he wants some help.

Competitions have been used in the past to help spur innovation, most notably a decade ago in the robo-car Grand Challenge conceived by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the skunkworks division of the US Department of Defense. Until that time, cars that could drive themselves using software algorithms and advanced sensors seemed restricted to science fiction, but the annual running of the DARPA obstacle course by autonomous vehicles, which came with up to a $2 million first-place prize, was instrumental in accelerating the technology.

Google, which hired the 2005 Grand Challenge winners, began testing self-driving cars across the globe in 2012, and the technology is now expected to become a greater presence in everyday life over the next 10 to 20 years. DARPA, meanwhile, is now taking a similar tack with robotics, and this year wrapped up a three-year project to develop humanoid robots for disaster relief.

SpaceX appears to be following that formula in turning the Hyperloop's complicated development into a competition with tight deadlines. The company is asking for interested participants to sign up by September and to have a final design ready by December. Those designs will be evaluated by SpaceX and Tesla engineers, as well as by Musk and university professors.

Just seven months later, the pod will need to be ready for a test. More detailed instructions about the process of entering the competition and what participants may be competing for will be released in August.

SpaceX did outline some focus areas where it hopes students and other interested parties will come up with innovations. Those include safety mechanisms to deal with the pod losing power and dealing with breaches to the tube carrying the pods; how ground operators will communicate with the pods; the physics regarding the airflow around the pod and how hot it may get at top speed; and specifics about the linear motors that will be used to propel the pods through the tube track.