Clean-tech visionary Elon Musk first unveiled his idea for a high-speed ground transport system called Hyperloop back in 2013. The concept -- in which passengers are transported in magnet-propelled capsules at more than 750 miles per hour -- was quickly dismissed by many as a pipe-dream.
But, while most of us weren't paying attention, a handful of private companies have been quietly working to make Musk's vision a reality. Now two of these firms (both unaffiliated with the Tesla and SpaceX CEO) say they are ready to begin testing the technology.
Hyperloop Technologies made waves at the end of last year when it acquired 50 acres of land near Las Vegas to test its version of the frictionless propulsion system. At the beginning of this month, the company granted a CNNMoney camera crew access to the site, where it is building a three-mile test loop that could see its first travelers by the end of this year. The company plans to test Hyperloop pods at speeds of up to 335 miles per hour -- roughly half the speed of a full-scale system, the Associated Press reported.
While the idea of traveling just under the speed of sound may sound like something straight out of "The Jetsons," the science behind the technology is fairly simple, said Hyperloop Technologies CEO Rob Lloyd.
"You just remove the pressure from inside an enclosed environment," he told CNNMoney. "You can think of that as a tube. You remove the friction of wheels by levitating that pod inside the tube. Then it takes a very little amount of energy to move that pod at incredible speeds."
Engadget caught up with Lloyd at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, where he said his company's test loop should be ready for passengers to try out during the 2016 holiday season.
Meanwhile, the similarly-named Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is joining the race for the first working track. On Wednesday, it filed for construction permits to build a five-mile loop in Quay Valley, California. The planned system will be powered by solar energy, further reducing impact. Notably, it will be a "full-scale hyperloop, not a test track," Bibop Gresta, the company's chief operating officer, said at a CNBC/TradeShift technology event in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday. "In 36 months we will have the first passenger in the first full-scale hyperloop."
The Los Angeles-based startup is operating on a fairly unique business model: It is entirely crowdfunded, and its staff works in exchange for equity in the company, rather than a paid salary -- indicating they're fairly bullish the concept will take off. The company told the Verge that it has talent from NASA, Boeing, Tesla and SpaceX working among its 480-plus volunteers.
The Quay Valley site is strategically located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making it the symbolic first step on the company's journey to carry passengers between the two cities in under 30 minutes. The site is also home to a proposed solar-powered, self-sustaining "model town" of the same name, under development by Los Angeles-based GROW Holdings.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies expects to begin principal construction on its track in the middle of this year. "Everyone traveling on California's I-5 in 2016 will be able to see our activities from the freeway," Dirk Ahlborn, the company's CEO, said in a statement. Although empty pods will be tested at speeds of 760 miles per hour, pods carrying passengers will be limited to around 160 miles per hour for safety reasons, Mashable reported.
While Elon Musk maintains that he is not affiliated with any Hyperloop companies, he said via the SpaceX website that he is "interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype." To that end, SpaceX launched an open competition last year that challenged college students and independent engineering teams to design and build the best Hyperloop pod. Contestants will convene later this month at Texas A&M University to submit their designs in the hopes of winning the $50,000 prize.
To support the competition, SpaceX is constructing a one-mile test track adjacent to its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Teams will test their human-scale pods during a competition weekend at the track, currently targeted for summer 2016, the company said.
So, who will win the race for the first functional Hyperloop? Only time will tell, but I for one am encouraged to finally see some progress on the concept. With the U.S. sorely lacking in high-speed ground transportation, the promise of a functional Hyperloop carries with it the possibility of leap-frogging the high-speed rail technologies now in use in Europe and Asia and moving directly to futuristic pod travel.
The primary drawback is, of course, cost. While the cost of the Nevada test track was not disclosed, the five-mile loop planned for Central California will cost an estimated $150 million. Musk himself estimates a fully-scaled California Hyperloop, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, would cost between $6 billion and $10 billion to build. A cost that high clearly brings scalability into question.
"The physics of it works," R. John Hansman Jr., an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Associated Press. "The real question is, can you get it to a point where it will be cost-competitive with other means of transportation? That's a big unknown."
The fully-realized vision of supersonic transport between cities is likely still a long way off, but mounting interest in the technology proves it's way more than a daydream. In the spirit of moving forward, we'll have our eye on the progress of these Hyperloop tests and keep champagne on ice for the winner.
Image credits: Hyperloop Technologies, Inc.