This weekend I went to the Hyperloop competition in Hawthorne! While our team did not end up racing, we passed a good number of the safety tests and did quite well.
For those of you unfamiliar with the hyperloop competition, it is a contest that has been put on in Hawthorne for four years now, with universities from all around the world competing. Elon Musk has long wanted to make a “hyperloop,” which is essentially an underground vacuum tunnel for transporting people very fast. He mostly abandoned the idea for a while, but then discovered a fantastic way to make progress in the area, get credit for the idea, and still spend only a few hours a year on it — he offloaded the work on the college students! Each team builds a small hyperloop prototype (not containing people) and shoots it through the above-ground vacuum tube at SpaceX! UC Davis has a team which made it into the top twenty, and was allowed to go down to Hawthorne and compete.
My hotel was only two miles away from SpaceX, so I was able to walk to the competition. It was pretty easy to figure out the way there, because the Falcon 9 rocket was on display in front of the building, and you could see it from quite a ways away! It’s 70 meters tall, and 3.7 meters wide at the base where the thrusters are. They were able to put the rocket on public display since it’s not going to enter space anymore. It’s essentially a retired rocket.
Also in front of the building was a tower erected with bricks dug up by the Boring Company. Musk has, of course, hired a man to dress in medieval armor and imitate the Monte Python French Knight from Holy Grail. I didn’t have time to stop by and speak with the man, so he didn’t actually end up telling me that my mother was a hamster and my father smelt of elderberries, or call my door opening request a silly thing, but I did get a picture! I’m a bit worried about that man though. His costume looked thick and it was a very hot day.
I met up with three students from the University of Zurich, who were also making their way to the competition in fantastically professional looking team shirts. The UC Davis team shirts were basically t-shirts, but these guys had gone all the way with buttons and everything. They had been there all week with their team, competing in safety tests. We discussed the competition, as well as comparing US university the majors from different countries, which can be much more specific. For example, one of them was getting their degree in electro-physics. We then discovered that we had entered the building at the wrong end of the tube! The practice tube is 1.6k long and above ground, which meant that we were going to have to walk 1.6k to get the our pods.
The competition center was essentially a long road, with tents for each team on either side. Most teams just had their pod and some chairs, but some had models of the real hyperloop with chairs and everything, and some had posters of what it would look like if the hyperloop was implemented across Europe!
As you can see there were a multitude of different pods from different countries! My favorite booth was the one for MIT Loop II. The culture clash between MIT and UT Austin was simply beautiful. The MIT students were showing people their augmented reality headset that showed people how the pod worked, and the UT Austin students were riding around on a wheelie box with a cow skull on it. Also I’d like to raise an objection: why is the pod just called MIT Loop II? I know MIT is ranked higher than UT Austin (so is UC Davis but that’s neither here nor there) but couldn’t they at least include the Texas kids in the team name? Serious power move by the MIT kids. Team Hyperlynx came in close second in the tent-awesomeness contest with their sloth mascot riding in a mini Tesla mounted on their chasis.
Farther out than the tents was the end of the tube where the pods would be inserted. Surrounding that was a fenced off open area where the mayor, and later Elon Musk, would get to speak. There was also a screen that showed what was going on inside the tube from the view of the pod, and showed the speed of the pod as it went along the tube. The mayor of Hawthorne talked a bit about the anniversary of Apollo 11, and thanked the teams for coming out.
The rest of the area was essentially an Elon Musk theme park. There were three Teslas on display: a Model S, a Model 3, and a Model X. I hung out in the model S for a while, and played some video games in the Model 3 using the steering wheel. Then some of the students messed around with the fart generator. I wanted to see if I could set off sentry mode and make the car play classical music, but the Tesla employee who was watching said I couldn’t. Probably the right call.
The Boring Company is another company made by Elon, which intends to eliminate traffic. It’s like Hyperloop, but not in a vacuum tube, and with regular cars instead of pods. They also had their show, with an employee light a bonfire with a not-a-flamethrower! I’m still not sure what digging tunnels underground has to do with fire, but whatever floats your boat! Or in this case, floats your million-dollar enterprise. In response to this flaming awesomeness taking place, other Boring employees sold fire extinguishers for 30$. There wasn’t anything special about them other than the logo, but they sold well!
My favorite Elon exhibit was the one for SpaceX. SpaceX is far from Elon’s most profitable venture, but it’s the coolest in my opinion. They showed the Dragon capsule, which was the first privately built object to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and will hopefully someday carry people! It was crazy to see how small it was. I could imagine it fitting one or two people, but seven seems a bit cramped! They also showed us the real thruster from Falcon 9, as well as an engine. It was amazing to see something that had actually been to the ISS and back, although technically I’ve met an astronaut so it’s not my first.
I’m not all that surprised that there wasn’t any Nurolink exhibit since he tends to keep that quiet (although he just did a hiring video so maybe less so now) and I’m also not surprised not to see anything about PayPal because while that was how he made his money, it’s not something that he’s working on anymore. I was however, a bit surprised to see Musk themed games. There was Boring Company vs SpaceX connect four, and SpaceX Jenga. As you can probably tell by now I’m a huge Musk fan, but I’m a bit worried about that man’s ego.
After checking out the Elonporium, I went to get some lunch with my teammates from the food trucks they had provided to keep the starving nerds fed. Apparently we were not going to be able to race in the tube, having not passed enough safety checks. However, only four teams were able to race out of 20, and none of them were US teams, so it wasn’t that disappointing. Also, it was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969 that Sunday, and we had passed 69 of the 122 tests, so we considered that an auspicious sign. And selfishly I’m actually kind of happy, because it means that I can move us forward as president.
Despite our pod not making it into the tube, I still think she’s one of the most beautiful pieces of hardware around and am delighted to have had a hand in designing her. The controls system was so big that we actually lost some points for it being “too advanced” compared to the rest of our pod.
After the races were over, and the Technical University of Munich won (and broke the record) Elon came out to talk! He congratulated the teams who raced and commented that it was a bit ironic that the final values were in miles per hours when all four of the teams who got to race used metric. Ouch.
Then he had a Q&A session where a selected member from one of the teams got to speak! I didn’t get chosen for my team, but a member of another team couldn’t think of what to ask, so I gave them my question: how do plan to protect the astronauts from solar radiation and how to you plan to terraform mars? He didn’t answer the safety question, but his plan for Mars is to nuke it! Apparently the heat from the radiation will keep things warm. He also talked about the benefits of building a base on the Moon, although it would be a bad idea to stop by the Moon on the way to Mars. In addition, he talked a bit about engineering skills. He said that very skilled engineers got stuck optimizing tasks that should be eliminated altogether, and that the best process is no process at all. He talked quite a bit about tunnels, and how they were essential for futuristic transportation, and mentioned that in about a month he plans to start building a tunnel under Las Vegas. Then he said that he wishes he could go back and revise the hyperloop paper, because he didn’t think pods were the way to go at all! Now he thinks that the best way to go is autonomous vehicles driving through the tubes, and not have them be vacuum because that’s too expensive. So this contests is now purely for the sake of competing! But that’s valuable too I suppose, especially for training engineers. Then he mentioned that he might possibly make another competition, this time focused on tunneling.
Something interesting I noticed about Elon. He claims to be 20% businessman and 80% engineer, and upon first reading that I didn’t believe him. After all, he’s the CEO, not the CTO, and he has kind of a cult of personality. After hearing him speak however, I have no doubts that he is indeed mostly an engineer. Elon Musk is the hugest nerd I’ve ever met. He didn’t care about answering the questions, and he didn’t even attempt to read the crowd. He was up there to talk about whatever engineering fact interested him at the moment. He talked for about half an hour about tunnels, and about why they are important, and he sounded just like an excited kid talking about a new science idea he had recently had. Every once in a while, he would seem unsure about how to answer a question, and talk a bit with his cofounder about what their plans were, or how the science would work. He got corrected once, and laughed. So my conclusion is that he must be a great engineer to have gone this far, because he’s certainly not a persuasive guy (except maybe online).
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