Hyperloop competitions should widen perspectives

Ryan Young

On any given school year, corporate players in STEM fields host numerous competitions to excite students about engineering and the sciences. They dangle the usual goals: Build the perfect electric car. Stop environmental devastation. Fix Austin traffic at rush hour. If you’ll forgive the trite expression, students compete to “make the world a better place.”

Right now, one competition is stealing all the headlines: The race to build Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. The concept would zoom travelers between cities at 760 mph in high-speed tubes, granting instant, affordable mobility. Instead of developing the idea himself, Musk is passing the challenge to university teams to “encourage student innovation.” Unfortunately, his competition focuses solely on the nuts and bolts. It doesn’t leave room to consider broader social implications, thereby shortchanging the bright minds participating in it.

Musk should encourage student innovation on all aspects of the idea, not just the engineering.

The second round of the Hyperloop competition wrapped up at SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters back in late August. Two of the teams were comprised of Longhorns — Guadaloop and 512 Hyperloop — with Guadaloop eventually winning an innovation award for their unique levitation system.

Speaking to both teams, I learned that the overarching goal was to construct a working Hyperloop pod. Musk and SpaceX did not include more practical or social concerns in the competition, such as how expensive it would be to construct Hyperloop tubes between cities or whether the system’s limited capacity might result in high ticket prices only elites could afford.

Deborah Navarro, with Guadaloop, received an undergraduate degree in biology from UT. At first, she considered analyzing Hyperloop from a non-technical standpoint. She thought about examining those gnarly G-forces Hyperloop would impose on its passengers when starting and stopping, but concluded “it was way too soon” to do so.

However, it’s never too early. The human and social sciences dictate the real-world consequences of any new technology just as much as the hard sciences. Given the chance, we could debate, discuss and solve these kinds of problems that are just as relevant to building Hyperloop.

When I met Sahar Rashed of 512 Hyperloop, she had one more point to add: “I believe Elon Musk is a pusher of innovation.” Rashed noted that even if moonshot projects such as NASA’s Space Shuttle don’t work out, they ultimately lead to great benefits for society.

Undoubtedly, the Shuttle was an engineering triumph that inspired countless Americans to pursue STEM studies. But as a means of transporting things into space, it was fabulously inefficient, costing 20 times more to fly than it was supposed to. Though Hyperloop is still in development, we should be asking if the concept — at least as Musk envisioned it — is heading down the same track. More holistic planning, led by students with diverse perspectives, could avoid costly future mistakes.

SpaceX is currently gearing up for the third Hyperloop competition, in which pods will be judged solely on “maximum speed.” I commend Musk for inspiring so many students, especially fellow Longhorns; but if he wants to be a visionary, he should go one step further with a round just for socioeconomic questions and policy wonks.

Give us the complete equation, Mr. Musk. We’re smart enough to solve it.

Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California.