Elon Musk Is Building a Hyperloop Test Track

The tech tycoon is launching a year-long contest for engineers to design and build pods for it.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Nearly two years ago, Elon Musk unveiled a blueprint for the Hyperloop: a fantastical, futuristic train that would link San Francisco and Los Angeles by means, essentially, of a giant tube. If the system worked, he said, four or five riders could whisk along the 350-mile long track in half an hour—a mode of transport both faster and cheaper than driving or flying.

Musk didn’t exactly design the Hyperloop though: He put a PDF about it on his website and said anyone could have a go. Since then, as many engineers have poked holes in its technical reasoning as companies have sprung up, trying to turn the conjecture into reality.

Neither Musk himself nor his astrophysics company, SpaceX, have touched the Hyperloop idea since August 2013. (The startups bearing the Hyperloop name, including Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, are not affiliated with either Musk or SpaceX.)

On Monday, though, both will take up the idea again. According to documents provided to The Atlantic, Musk and SpaceX are announcing a competition for the best Hyperloop pod design, targeted at university and independent engineering teams. The competition will include both a design competition and a build competition, for which teams will run half-scale pods down a Hyperloop test track.

That one-mile-long test track will be built for the competition by SpaceX near its headquarters outside Los Angeles. No humans will travel through the tube. The company plans to offer competition winners a prize, but it hasn’t yet said what that will be. “While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype,” SpaceX said in a statement.

An artist’s rendering of the Hyperloop (SpaceX)

The company also poses some “representative questions” which it hopes teams will answer in the design contest—questions that make it clear just how much work still needs to be done hammering out the Hyperloop idea. They include: “What safety mechanisms are in place to mitigate a complete loss of pod power?” and “What safety mechanisms are in necessary to mitigate a tube breach?” and “How should ground operators communicate with the pod, especially in the case of an emergency?”

The company, hoping to catch idle students on summer break, asks participants to apply before September 15, 2015. The competition day on the test track is scheduled for June 2016.

While many fields eschew design contests, as they’re a form of working for free, such competitions tend to be more embraced in engineering, where the costs of participation are steep and many teams find corporate or academic sponsors. The first private spaceflight, after all, came about because of an XPrize-funded private engineering competition. They also—somewhat like Musk’s fantastical, tycoon-driven ethos—have something of a Victorian flair.

After all (in another Jules Verne-like touch), the entire Hyperloop project exists as a kind of challenge to the California high-speed rail line, the most expensive public-works project in American history. That project is slated for completion in 2029, which might seem like a distant date. But, on the other hand, at least engineers know how the trains they're building will work.