Using similar propulsion technology, the Hyperloop pods developed by EPFL and ETH Zurich turned in a solid performance in Los Angeles: EPFLoop topped out at 238 km/h in the airless tube set up by SpaceX, while Swissloop peaked at 259km/h. The Technical University of Munich hit a top speed of 463km/h, demolishing the record – and its capsule – in the process.
For months the 21 student teams selected for the fourth edition of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition toiled away in secret, turning their bold ideas into unique solutions that could one day be the driving force behind a new means of transportation. Then came time to unveil their prototypes. It turns out that EPFL’s team, dubbed EPFLoop, and Swissloop, the team composed of students from ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, settled on the same type of propulsion system, a linear induction motor. They were the only ones to choose this type of motor, and they made the right decision. The conventional motor used by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) may have been faster – it reached a speed of 463 km/h – but the Swiss teams’ pods proved more reliable. Unlike TUM’s pod, the Swiss teams’ machines remained physically intact after reaching speeds of 238km/h (for EPFLoop) and 259 km/h (for Swissloop).
“We’re disappointed with the outcome, of course,” says Martin Seydoux, the EPFLoop captain. “But we’re happy that our pod, Bella Lui, functioned exactly as expected. In all the tests we ran over the past week, up to the very last minute, the performance indicators were right in line with our predictions.”
So what went wrong?
At 9am on Sunday morning, the four teams chosen to compete in the final race on the 1.6 km vacuum track were hard at work. EPFLoop went second – after the University of Delft – at 11:30am. The pod’s batteries were fully charged and even heated slightly in order to boost their power. The EPFL students carefully loaded their pod onto the track following very strict procedures, and then the door to the tube was sealed and the air removed. On a giant screen, eight video cameras positioned every 250 meters in the tunnel displayed the rail lit by a series of black and white neon lights. Just like at a rocket launch, the pod’s mission objectives were announced in a detailed protocol: maximum speed, distance and braking. The pod pilots handed control over to the autonomous system just prior to takeoff: “Ready to go! 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, launch!”
As the seconds ticked by, the onlookers watched Bella Lui approach and shoot past each video camera in turn. At the same time, a curve graph displayed the relationship between the pod’s speed and the distance covered. 100 km/h, 150 km/h, 200 km/h…the tension mounted as the pod neared the sixth camera – you could hear a pin drop. The pod was approaching the seventh camera when the compressed air brakes suddenly engaged, grinding the machine to a halt. For some reason, the communication link between the control post and the pod had broken. Even operating autonomously, the pod couldn’t continue on its own for safety reasons, and so it stopped in its tracks after recording a top speed of only 238 km/h. The team will need to figure out the source of the communications snafu.
“The EPFLoop students possess values that will be critical for the future of our planet, dedicating themselves to developing systems meant to further reduce humankind’s environmental impact,” says Mario Paolone, the team’s main advisor. “And the team made enormous progress over the past year. For the first time we used a high-speed linear induction motor and high-temperature batteries, combined with a carbon fiber shell and a robust autopilot that can operate even if some of the sensors fail.”
TUM’s victory nevertheless left the two Swiss teams with a sense of frustration and disbelief. Although the German team chalked up an impressive speed record, its pod began to self-destruct while braking. Shouldn’t the team be disqualified for this? After deliberating for more than an hour, the organizers decided against that.
As expected, Elon Musk, who owns SpaceX, came to congratulate the four finalist teams in person. EPFL’s Martin Seydoux asked him whether he would consider applying criteria other than just speed – such as reliability – to the competition. Although Musk did not answer this question directly, the billionaire entrepreneur mentioned his hope of using a longer tube, possibly in the shape of a tunnel, in the 2021 competition.
Marc Gruber, EPFL’s vice president for innovation, was on hand to support the team: “By participating in this event, EPFL showed that it is a global leader in innovation. We faced off against nearly two dozen teams from all over the world and finished third. Just as publications are a measure of successful research, student competitions like this are proof of our ability to innovate alongside the best of them.”