The members of Hyperloop UC had driven a very long way to have an identity crisis. Including bathroom breaks, roadside meals and a frantic three hours of last-minute changes at a Starbucks outside of Nashville, Tenn., the trip from Cincinnati to the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend at Texas A&M University took 25 hours and 17 minutes. Weary but eager, the students set up a booth to share their vision for a new mode of transportation. But many of their visitors, instead of inquiring about the innovative design or technical specifications, asked this: Are you from UC Berkeley, UC Davis or UCLA?
Dhaval Shiyani, the Hyperloop UC team captain, shakes his head in mock frustration as he remembers the mix-up. “No, we’re from Ohio. We are the UC. The only UC!” he laughs. After his team’s performance in Texas, however, he expects far less confusion. Out of the over 1,000 initial submissions to the contest and 115 teams that presented at the design weekend in January, Hyperloop UC was one of only 30 to qualify for the final round in late August—a competition of prototypes on a test track outside of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The UC team is putting its own spin on the hyperloop, a transportation concept first developed by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk. In this system, vehicles called pods would zip through a large steel tube with very low air pressure. Musk’s original design imagined that the pods would float on cushions of pressurized air, much like pucks sliding across an air hockey table, but Hyperloop UC’s version uses magnetic levitation. Because the tube reduces air resistance and the magnets eliminate friction, hyperloop pods could make smooth journeys at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour.
Promising the swiftness of a plane and the convenience of a subway, the hyperloop had excited Shiyani ever since Musk first released the “Hyperloop Alpha” white paper in 2013. When SpaceX announced its competition in the summer of 2015, the master’s student in aerospace engineering immediately gathered a team to explore new ideas for a pod. “It started as a core engineering thing, just me talking with five or six of my friends to compile a rough document of what our design should be,” Shiyani recalls. With that groundwork in hand, the team took to social media to find new members, posting a recruitment flyer that called for “ambitious individuals” to “come design the future.”