For those of you holding out hope for one more high-speed test of the hyperloop before the end of the year, you’re in luck. On December 15th, Virgin Hyperloop One conducted the third demonstration of its not-to-scale system in the desert outside of Las Vegas, sending its magnetically levitating pod through a nearly airless tube at 240 mph (387 km/h).
It was a significant increase over the team’s previous record of 192 mph, but far less than the hyperloop’s theoretical maximum speed of 700 mph. The company believes it would need an additional 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) of track to hit that velocity. As it stands, the XP-1 pod’s maximum achievable speed in the current 1,620-foot DevLoop test track is 250 mph.
It was a bit of good news for the company, which has just experienced a major rebranding and leadership shake-up. Yesterday, it was reported that co-founder and chairman Shervin Pishevar is out, thanks to allegations of sexual assault and misconduct (which Pishevar denies), and Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson is in. Branson also helped secure a new $50 million investment from two existing investors, which sources say will help the cash-strapped company help meet its payroll obligations.
Perhaps more important than the speed of the XP-1 pod was the demonstration of the team’s new airlock technology. In order to obtain the high speeds first theorized in Elon Musk’s 2013 white paper, the hyperloop pod needs to travel through a near-vacuum state. This frictionless environment allows the magnetically levitating pod to travel at airliner-speeds through the length of the tube. The airlock will be a key factor in transferring pods with passengers or cargo between atmospheric states.
According to Virgin Hyperloop One:
All components of the system were successfully tested including the airlock, highly efficient electric motor, advanced controls and power electronics, custom magnetic levitation and guidance, pod suspension, and the vacuum. The tests were conducted in a tube depressurized down to the equivalent air pressure experienced at 200,000 feet above sea level. A Virgin Hyperloop One pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.
The ability to maintain a vacuum in the tube, especially one hundreds of miles long, is one of the steepest challenges facing the hyperloop. Every time a pod arrives at a station, it has to decelerate and stop. Then the airlock will have to close, pressurize, and open again. Then the pod has to clear the airlock before the next pod arrives. The speed in which this occurs will determine the distance between pods.
The longer the headway, the less capacity these pods will have, which may determine how useful a mass transit system the hyperloop can be. Operators can try to compensate by building larger pods, but then they’ll need stronger steel for their tubes to accommodate the added weight, and that spells higher costs.
Virgin Hyperloop One’s speed record may not stand for long. It is only slightly more than the 220 mph notched by Musk’s own Tesla-branded pod back in August at the conclusion of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, California. The student team from Germany’s WARR Hyperloop, took home the top prize in the competition for its pod which traveled 201 mph.
Musk’s test track, which is 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) is a little longer than Virgin Hyperloop One’s DevLoop. But it seems likely that whichever company builds a longer track will be the one that ultimately gets to brag about speed.