Hyperloop is maybe almost possibly here! But which hyperloop company did that thing this week? And what kind of technology is it using? Does it work? Most importantly, when are we getting one? We have all the answers for you, right here. It's hard to sift through all the news about the totally tubular high-speed transit tech that may or may not radically change our lives. But it's especially tough when several of the players decide to make big announcements in the same week.
Here's a guide to recent hyperloop advancements. There are many more universities and likely a few more smaller startups at work on hyperloop-ish technology, but these four organisations are making headlines and building components that will likely bring the idea from concept to reality — fast.
Year started: 2013. In August 2013, Elon Musk published his famous white paper on a hypothetical levitating train in a vacuum tube that could reach speeds of up to 1223km/h. The internet buzzed with fantasies of travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. By October, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) was incorporated, pledging to make Musk's proposal real.
Founders: The project began as a crowdsourced effort at Jumpstarter's JumpStartFund. Jumpstarter's CEO Dirk Ahlborn also became CEO of HTT. (Jump!)
Location: Playa Vista, California, but all over the world, technically, because it's a crowdsourced effort.
Employees: None, but 520 people are "working" for the company in exchange for equity.
Who's paying for it: No one yet, technically, but when you sign up you can pledge to bring startup capital to the project. You could be an investor.
Notable partners: Engineering firm AECOM, Pittsburgh-based vacuum company Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and UCLA's architecture school, which devoted a semester of its curriculum to designing the hyperloop passenger experience.
Major announcement made this week: HTT has licensed a technology known as Inductrack that was developed by Richard F. Post at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Post died last year.) Elements of this technology — including track design, conductors, and various train configurations — were patented by Post, and HTT now owns exclusive rights to them.
Technological advantage: Passive magnetic levitation. The Inductrack idea uses a magnet configuration called a Halbach array, the same propulsion concept used in particle accelerators. It hasn't ever been used for transportation, but it should work — Port calculated that the magnets can lift 50 times their weight and will provide a smooth ride. That's a good thing, because HTT is focusing specifically on Musk's original vision of passenger travel.
Proof it's real: Permits have been acquired for a 8km test track that is being planned for Quay Valley, in Northern California. As for the levitation technology, test versions of the Inductrack technology were built a decade ago.
Where you might see it first: Slovakia. HTT has a deal with the government to bring passenger hyperloop to several cities in the European country.
What a physicist says: "The system that HTT is using is really clever," according to Stephen Granade, a physicist who previously explained the biggest problems with hyperloop tech to Jalopnik. "There are a number of great things about this system. The first is that the levitation system doesn't take any power. The car uses permanent magnets, not super-cooled superconducting magnets like Japan's SCMaglev system uses. The track's just got passive conductors embedded in it. Since the system doesn't take power to levitate the car, it's much easier to build larger versions of the system as needed."
Year started: 2014 as Hyperloop Technologies, Inc., rebranded in 2016 as Hyperloop One.
Founders: Shervin Pishevar and former Space X engineer Brogan BamBrogan (we can't make these things up) started the company in Pishevar's LA garage. CEO Rob Lloyd, a former president of sales at Cisco, joined the company last year.
Location: Downtown Los Angeles and North Las Vegas
Who's paying for it: Hyperloop One got $US37 million ($50 million) in funding to build the test track. A recent round of $US80 million ($109 million) included France's railway system SNCF.
Notable partners: Engineering firms AECOM and Arup, as well as transportation and tunnelling partners from Amberg Group (Switzerland), Deutsche Bahn (Germany) and Systra (France). Also, famous architect Bjarke Ingels. Board members include former White House chief of staff Jim Messina and XPrize founder Peter Diamandis.
Major announcement made this week: Hyperloop One made the first full-scale, open-air test of its propulsion technology, a linear-electric motor that will eventually accelerate a hyperloop pod to speeds of over 1127km/h in a vacuum tube. A "sled" on a test track generated a force of about 2.5Gs before ploughing into a pile of sand at the end — the company hasn't yet designed brakes.
Technological advantage: Speed — at least from a developmental standpoint. Even though Hyperloop One was second on the scene, it's been able to design its prototypes and build its first test track in about 16 months. In addition to the test site in Vegas, the startup has a growing engineering facility in Los Angeles, where it is working on tube production. And in 2015, Hyperloop One announced it would focus on cargo first, people second, which is a much easier proposition.
Proof it's real: You can watch it for yourself.
Where you might see it first: Feasibility studies are underway in Stockholm and Helsinki, the Port of Los Angeles, and Switzerland.
What a physicist says: Hyperloop One built a "Levitation Test Rig" that you can see in action on its Facebook page, and talked to Engineering.com about testing air bearings at high-speed in a near-vaccum. But until Granade knows which levitation tech Hyperloop One is going with, it's tough to make a call about its system a whole. "Early on it looked like they were going to use air bearings," he says. "The Engineering.com article mentions that they were also investigating magnetic levitation systems. I'm betting they go in that direction as well. There are a lot of benefits to a passive maglev system over an air bearing one." Granade has questions for Hyperloop One after their big test: "They're testing the linear accelerator motors, but how are the other subsystems going? Where are they on the levitation subsystem?"
Year started: 2015. MIT Hyperloop was the team that won the Texas A&M and SpaceX sponsored competition earlier this year to design vehicle concepts.
Founders: Faculty advisors from the school's departments of Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Employees: None, 28 MIT students are on the team
Who's paying for it: There's a long list of sponsors — including Hyperloop One.
Notable partners: Advisors include Bruce Montgomery, CEO of Magplane Technology Inc., and Tracy Clark, vice president of technology for Magnemotion.
Major announcement made this week: On Friday, the team is planning to announce something related to its pod design.
Technological advantage: I mean, it's MIT.
Proof it's real: As part of the competition, MIT will supposedly be testing its pods on SpaceX's test track this summer. Runners-up from Delft University of Technology, University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and University of California, Irvine are supposedly building pods to test on SpaceX's track as well.
Where you might see it first: Since MIT's pod design is working in conjunction with SpaceX's test track, it will likely be incorporated into SpaceX's concept. But there's no real-world application on the horizon at the moment.
What a physicist says: It's just a pod design concept so far, but the MIT team is also using Halbach-array magnets to float its car, which has lots of benefits, according to Granade. "A physicist in the 1980s named Klaus Halbach came up with the configuration to use in particle accelerators, but Halbach arrays are everywhere now, mostly stuck on refrigerators," he said. "Refrigerator magnets use a Halbach-array configuration for the same reason hyperloop does: because you get nearly twice the magnetic field than if you used a row of magnets all pointed in the same direction, and you have a side that has nearly no magnetic field."
Year started: 2002
Founder: Elon Musk
Employees: 5000, although most of them aren't working on hyperloop projects.
Who's paying for it: Google and Fidelity are investors in SpaceX, but the Hyperloop money probably comes from Musk himself
Notable partners: AECOM is going to be really busy building these test tracks. The engineering firm has also signed on for SpaceX's track.
Major announcement made this week: Nothing so far, but this is Elon Musk we're talking about. The week's not over yet.
Technological advantage: Probably a lot when your company is simultaneously working on going to Mars.
Proof it's real: In 2015 Musk announced SpaceX was building a test track, maybe in Texas, then a "1.6km test track adjacent to its Hawthorne, California headquarters."
Where you might see it first: Musk isn't interested in SpaceX building a hyperloop, supposedly. But now SpaceX is building a test track, so...
What a physicist says: Granade is mostly concerned with Musk's original idea to use air bearings to levitate the pod, which requires compressed air to run. "His version sucked in air from the front of the car. But there's not going to be a lot of air in the tube, plus, to make your car as aerodynamic as possible, it's better not to have any of the air slamming into a cavity in your train to be collected," he said. "You'd probably have to carry containers of compressed air to run the air bearings, which is an added weight and also will be far noisier than the passive magnetic system." Although earlier this year, Musk said he liked the idea of wheels. You just never know.
Top video: SpaceX; GIF: Gizmodo