I don’t typically write about a single event that happened, but at this point I kind of have to because this was a particularly strange one. My business lead and I attended a zoom meeting led by Samarth, who is part of the Hard Tech Fund at UC Davis. The Hard Tech Fund is also related to Hyperloop, but it is more focused on the actual technology (such as cutting edge braking systems) than on the competition run by Musk. They held a meeting for many HyperLoop teams, both in and out of the US, to meet up and talk about what was going on.
Many things were discussed, including this new competition that the Boring Company is holding where you dig a tunnel, but the main thing I want to focus on is the reaction of the one European student (Technical University of Munich) when he heard how things were done by the American universities.
You see, year after year, all the European teams completely destroy the American teams during the hyperloop competition. A European student from the Technical University of Munich brought this up, and asked why (he was quite polite about it). At first, we mentioned funding. European teams are able to get much more funding than American teams because they can get funded by the government and the universities. TUM has a budget of €500,000, and OneLoop currently has a budget of $2,400 (although we will hopefully have more soon). That’s one disadvantage we have.
However, he explained that only a smallish portion of their budget is given by the government and university – they get a lot of funding from corporations. In getting funding from private companies the playing field should be fairly even. He asked what we were doing to get more funding and we told him we had 8 people on our business team. His first reaction was shock that 8 people couldn’t secure us a budget of ‘over a million USD!’ and I felt a bit sad that I hadn’t been able to do something that his team could easily do.
A few minutes later though, I realized what the problem is. He asked how many of our members were full-time, or half-time. One of the Americans asked him to clarify what he meant, and apparently in most European universities, students are able to take an entire semester off to focus on Hyperloop, and even if they can’t drop all their classes they can at least drop some. We explained to him that it was not like that with American universities. He asked if this was because of how crazy our tuition was (it’s always interesting to see which American problems non-Americans are familiar with) and we told him that it was partially that, but there are also other issues. At UC Davis, many engineering classes are only offered once a year. If you take a quarter off you will have to wait to take them next year and you’ll be a year behind. If you did that to focus on hyperloop you’d be paying for food and housing for that year even if you didn’t pay tuition, which makes it virtually impossible. European universities tend to be more flexible with requirements.
He seemed very surprised about this, and concluded that American universities weren’t really built to let people do projects like this. European teams consisted of half time and full time members, while all our members are basically zero time. The reason why an 8 person business team in America can’t do what a 2 person European business team can do is because they are able to work 120 hour weeks to get it done. Our students are also working 120 hour weeks, but 115 of those ours are spent on classwork. It’s just not possible. Apparently the previous president was able to get class credits for hyperloop, but it only counted as one class which didn’t free up much time. I’m going to look into getting OneLoop approved as a source of elective credit which could give us an edge over other American universities, but it won’t put us in competition with the European ones.
Another issue is the main reason that hyperloop teams can get sponsors is because companies want to give resources to students who will learn to use their tools and eventually buy them when the go out to work in industry. They are much more willing to give tools to people who will use them more, because it’s a better return on investment. He mentioned that he really didn’t like working with students who were also taking classes because they could only work a few hours a week, and to be honest I’m pretty happy that our team has gotten as far as it has. We didn’t do as well, but we had vastly fewer recourses.
In my opinion, the issue with this is not simply that we perform less well on hyperloop competition. The issue is that we are learning less. I have learned far more from my research positions and hyperloop than I have from my classes — like most engineers, I learn best from projects. The fact that we have as much work as we are causes us to learn less, not more. Not only are the European universities doing better during competitions, but they are providing their students with a better education.
Towards the end, I brought up that I wasn’t sure if I wanted our team to be working on physical testing because of COVID. The TUM student asked why I was so worried about that, because COVID seemed to be pretty much over. Wasn’t the US reopening?
Anyways, that led to a pretty interesting conversation.
So now I'm very sad to live in this country. Thoughts on how this problem might be remedied?
May you be ever victorious in your endeavors!