SpaceX just completed its fourth hosted Hyperloop competition since its 2017 debut and Hyperloop inventor and CEO Elon Musk capped the successful event with a big claim: in 2020, SpaceX plans to host Competition 5 at a brand-new vacuum tunnel that could offer all kinds of new opportunities to next year’s student teams.
According to Musk, that new track – presumably to be built by The Boring Company with SpaceX help – could be up to 10 km (6.2 mi) in length, will support a full vacuum like its 1.6 km (1 mi) predecessor, and will feature a curved track. Altogether, those features could support truly insane top speeds and allow teams to test pods with far more realistic acceleration profiles relative to those that have been tested at SpaceX’s track in the last few years. Furthermore, Musk specifically described the new track as a “10km vacuum tunnel”, immediately bringing to mind the obvious possibility of a new Boring Company collaboration.
As mentioned above, SpaceX just wrapped up its fourth Hyperloop competition in two years. Of the 21 teams that won slots in the event, only four were judged by SpaceX to be ready for speed runs. Of those four, the German team TUM Hyperloop (formerly WARR Hyperloop) reached a top speed of 288 mph (463 km/h, 128 m/s) before the pod suffered visible damage and performed a flawless emergency stop, pulling dozens of Gs and coming to a halt in just 50-100m.
In a nominal outcome, TUM Hyperloop anticipated that their fourth-generation pod could reach a top speed of more than half the speed of sound (~380+ mph, 600+ km/h). In 2018, they achieved a spectacular top speed of 290 mph, just slightly edging out Pod IV’s pre-anomaly performance this year. The runner-up, Swissloop, reached a still-impressive top speed of ~160 mph (260 km/h), a demonstrating of just how far ahead of its peers TUM/WARR remains.
At the end of the day, speed records are just icing on the Hyperloop Competition cake, following the main motivation of offering an almost unbeatable applied engineering learning opportunity for student groups around the world.
Assuming SpaceX and/or The Boring Company manage to pull off a minor engineering miracle and successfully build a “10km vacuum tunnel” in a single year, the company will have easily set itself up to host countless more competitions in the coming years. Additionally, assuming that “tunnel” refers to a full-scale tunnel capable of being built by The Boring Company, SpaceX’s new Hyperloop test facilities will be at or very near full-scale relative to the operational, human-rated transportation system that is the concept’s ultimate goal.
The test tunnel quite literally bored under the current above-ground Hyperloop track has a final usable diameter of 12 feet (3.7m), more than double the 6-foot (1.8m) diameter of the track currently used for competitions. Additionally, it would be even larger than Hyperloop One’s ~11 foot (3.3m) diameter Nevada test track. Ultimately, such a large tunnel would simultaneously give The Boring Company experience with building a true vacuum tunnel system and provide an opportunity for full-scale vacuum train (i.e. hyperloop) testing over unprecedented distances.
Maybe, just maybe, Elon Musk is thinking about putting a bit more time into turning his original Hyperloop concept into a finished product.
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