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The Hyperloop’s Underwhelming First Public Test

The propulsion system for a possible design for Elon Musk’s high-speed transit concept—the Hyperloop—got a test run in the Nevada desert.

Kitty Hawk could only be reached by boat when Wilbur and Orville Wright conducted their historic first flights, in 1901. And again in 1902. And also in 1903, when they finally sent out a telegram announcing “SUCCESS FOR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING.”

A few papers picked up the story, but most turned it down. The “Kitty Hawk Moment” that changed the world was in fact constructed from many incremental moments, over years.

On a scrubby patch of desert in North Las Vegas on Wednesday, I may have witnessed the first tiny building block of a Kitty Hawk Moment for the high-speed-transit concept known as the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop was originally conceived by rocket and car entrepreneur Elon Musk. The idea is to move capsules bearing people or freight around at 700 miles per hour inside partially evacuated tubes (see “The Unbelievable Reality of the Impossible Hyperloop”).

Today startup Hyperloop One—until yesterday known as Hyperloop Technologies—bused out press, investors, and employees to gaze at 2,000 feet of track surrounded by yuccas and scrub and dirt. The first 100 feet or so was wired to three nearby trailers capable of delivering megawatts of electricity. That power would be used to propel a sled—really just a hunk of metal—using electromagnetic force.

Startup Hyperloop One has built a test track in North Las Vegas.

There was a lot of pomp and circumstance. Shervin Pishevar, Hyperloop One’s cofounder and chairman, quoted Teddy Roosevelt—the one about how it’s not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”—and dedicated the event to the company’s engineers.

Then there was a countdown, and a screen showing engineers manning the test, packed into a trailer nearby. And then … the sled moved. It ran down the track quickly, but not lightning fast, and cruised to a stop as it plowed through a patch of track intentionally covered in sand.

There was applause. I laughed. It was sort of a letdown. It worked. But it had also been working this way in private for weeks already, and would continue working this way as they added new parts and did new tests.

On Tuesday evening, Hyperloop One hosted an event in Vegas, where CEO Rob Lloyd announced the company’s name change, along with several far more interesting items.

We learned the company has partnerships with various large engineering firms from all over the globe, but especially Europe, as well as a partnership with GE. “We couldn’t see why this couldn’t work,” the GE investor said.

These are huge, and hugely legitimizing, relationships. It was exhilarating to hear a representative from Finland, for example, talk about how transformational a Hyperloop might be for connecting cities across Scandinavia that still rely heavily on ferries. Someone from Arup, one of the largest engineering firms in the world, explained how the relatively small-bore tunnels required for the Hyperloop could be practical to thread over and under the English countryside.

Lloyd also invited companies and city and national governments to take part in an international competition, something like an Olympic bid, to host the next site for the Hyperloop. Rather than just being a test track, it will be a working model between cities, he said.

Brogan BamBrogan, a Hyperloop One cofounder and its lead engineer, said the company would get to that point by rapidly adding more and more pieces to the simple system being tested today. “This is rad and it’s gonna get a lot radder,” he said. His company reckons it can stage a full demonstration of the Hyperloop, vacuum tube, levitating pod, and all, near the end of this year.

If we ever do see the Hyperloop in its finished form, it may be an anticlimax, a bit like today’s test. The Wrights slaved away at their project on a barely accessible bit of land. Hyperloop One is doing everything at once: the building and selling. When we see it, if we see it, it probably won’t look impressive, but inevitable.

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