In Light of New Hyperloop Speed Record, Elon Musk Teases Huge Boost in 2020

TUM Hyperloop has claimed an all-new record.

Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s design for a vacuum-sealed pod transit system, may soon edge closer to its theoretical maximum speeds of 700 mph. That’s all thanks to a big change coming at the SpaceX campus, which has been supporting students in their quest to design the fastest pod.

The space-faring firm held its fourth hyperloop pod design competition on Sunday, which saw team TUM Hyperloop set a new public speed record of 288 mph. The record is just four miles per hour faster than the previous speed record, set at last July’s third competition under TUM’s old name, WARR Hyperloop.

Munich-based TUM was the fourth and final team to compete on Sunday. The first, Delft Hyperloop, activated its brakes 200 meters into the 1.3-kilometer run after a loss of communication. The second, EPFL Hyperloop, reached 148 mph two-thirds of the way before losing communications. The third, Swissloop, reached 161 mph.

Musk, who envisioned the hyperloop in a white paper six years ago, teased that next year’s competition would drop one of the biggest obstacles to reaching those higher speeds.

“Next year’s Hyperloop competition will be in a 10km vacuum tunnel with a curve,” Musk declared over Twitter in the aftermath.

SpaceX's current hyperloop tunnel.
SpaceX's current hyperloop tunnel.

For the student-led teams looking to demonstrate that hyperloop is a viable mode of transport, it could be the big break they’re looking for. The first four competitions have all used a track measuring 0.8 miles long and six feet in diameter, housed at the SpaceX campus in Hawthorne, California. The short distance means teams have to accelerate and brake in an incredibly short space of time.

With a 6.2-mile track, that could all change.

Hyperloop: Why Distance Could Unlock New High Speeds

The hyperloop has come under intense scrutiny ever since Musk unveiled his white paper for a vacuum-sealed train back in 2013. It could offer clean transport between cities at ultra-high speeds. Musk’s original paper proposed a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles moving at 760 mph, each capsule carrying 28 people, to reach the other end in 35 minutes. An alternative high-speed rail line projects a travel time of two hours and 40 minutes.

Hyperloop station concept design.
Hyperloop station concept design by Delft Hyperloop.

Members of the hyperloop industry speaking to Inverse have previously explained that distance is one of the biggest hurdles to reaching those dizzying speeds. Manoj Mathew, associate vice president for hyperloop team sponsor Cognizant, told Inverse in December 2018 that “the current top speed of 290 was achieved, although limited by the length and quality of the track and the source of power for the pod.”

Delft Hyperloop, which won the first SpaceX competition back in January 2017, told Inverse in July 2018 that a hyperloop ideally needs around 44 miles to reach its top speed. That allows enough time to accelerate and brake safely, a key factor in transporting passengers. High forces may be fun for a rollercoaster, but not so fun if it causes a commuter to spill their drink.

“The acceleration [on a public hyperloop] will actually be slower because if you accelerate this fast it will not be comfortable,” Clément Hienen, the team’s design engineer, said. “The speeds will actually be a lot larger because on large tracks, for example from Amsterdam to Paris, that will only take you 30 minutes because speeds of 1,000 kilometers per hour will be reached.”

Current high-speed train journeys between Amsterdam and Paris take nearly three-and-a-half hours.

TUM Hyperloop's pod design.
TUM Hyperloop's pod design.

Hyperloop: Pod Design Loosens Its Restrictions

TUM Hyperloop and other teams have been forced to work to this limitation in their pod designs. TUM’s winning pod used on Sunday has a tweaked design from previous years. It uses eight smaller brushless motors, an improved carbon fiber design, and a custom-built braking system. It has a mass of 63 kg, a maximum payload of 50 kg, and a levitation height of nine millimeters.

Its demonstrated maximum speed of around 290 mph has a braking distance of 137 meters — a relatively short distance that becomes less necessary over longer tracks.

TUM Hyperloop with their pod.
TUM Hyperloop with their pod.

A 6.2-mile track could be the longest publicly known hyperloop track. TransPod, a France-based private hyperloop company, announced in January plans to build a 1.86-mile track in the western town of Droux. The goal would be to start operations in 2020.

Perhaps most exciting for next year’s prospective SpaceX students is TransPod’s biggest goal: to beat the high-speed rail world record of 373 mph in three years. If it can do that on a 1.86-mile track, it could mean students can achieve even higher speeds on a track three times longer.

Hyperloop is fast, but what comes next could be even faster. SpaceX has outlined an idea to use its Starship rocket to host point-to-point flight around the Earth. The cross-planet flights are expected to take less than half an hour. New York to Paris in half an hour, anyone?

Media via SpaceX, Delft, Flickr/TUM Hyperloop (1, 2), TUM Hyperloop