Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, Mariana Avezum imagined how she could eliminate the traffic that choked her city's roadways every day. The Friday evening traffic jams are so bad that the BBC reported gridlocks there often stretched for 112 miles. But Avezum's hometown is hardly unique in its congestion.
"We need to find something better than we have today," said Avezum, who recently completed her master's degree in software engineering at the Technical University of Munich. "Something better than everyone waking up at the same time, gunning down the same streets in the same cars."
"We need to find something better than we have today."
Avezum, 27, got her chance when she heard about hyperloop, the experimental form of transportation brought to public attention in 2013 by Elon Musk. The idea is a kind of vacuum-sealed tube system capable of propelling passenger and cargo pods at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour, making overland travel comparable to airplanes. The allure is easy to understand—the most wildly optimistic ideas posit transit across large expanses, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, in under an hour.
A handful of companies have been working on creating the first pieces of this new technology, but some US and international students got a chance to have a part of that history earlier this year.
Avezum formed the Technical University of Munich's student hyperloop team, named WARR Hyperloop, to create one of the world's first working hyperloop pods. After more than a year of preparation, WARR hyperloop's pod got to prove its worth at SpaceX's Hyperloop Pod Competition in January.
"For us, it's always been about developing a new technology and do something that doesn't exist yet," said Avezum. Her team's pod won the competition's top speed prize for reaching just over 58 miles per hour. That's actually much slower than Avezum and crew hoped, but was still fast enough to win this particular contest. (Delft Hyperloop, from the Netherlands, won the competition's other top prize for overall merit).
The pods had to be designed to speed up quickly and run along a track inside a vacuum-sealed tube. Many teams used magnets or air bearings to make the pod levitate inside the tube, further cutting down any barriers to speed.
Avezum's desire to solve technical challenges through software engineering led her to pursue a bachelor's and master's in the subject at the Technical University of Munich.
"All the problems in the next 30 years are going to have some sort of coding aspect to them," she said.
When she heard Elon Musk was arranging a student competition to create the world's first working hyperloop pods, she rallied other students from her university to start a project proposal—now a team of about 40 engineers in several disciplines, from logistics experts to marketing specialists.
As her team moves into the next SpaceX hyperloop competition this summer, one specifically for speed, Avezum is taking a back seat and handing over team leadership. She said she handed in her master's thesis on hyperloop development earlier this month and is considering job options, preferably something to do with hyperloop.
The beauty, and the mind-boggling challenge, of creating a hyperloop pod was knowing where to start. In some ways, the pods were like an airplane or a racecar, but it took creativity to resolve the unique engineering challenges that came their way, Avezum said.
Of course, she noted, hyperloop alone won't clear the streets of São Paulo, New York City or London—nor will it solve the problem of running transportation on limited fossil fuels. But combined with self-driving cars, electric cars, more public transit and, one day, electric planes, it could be a piece of a completely efficient transportation system.
And hyperloop is meant to get make that travel more environmentally friendly than air travel or gas-fueled trains since the only energy used is the initial propulsion. Once the pod is levitating and moving at the right speed, it will keep going without added energy until it hits a brake.
"The hyperloop promises to produce more energy than it consumes" by installing solar panels on top of the vacuum tubes, she said. But those hopes are on the backburner for now—first, inventors like Avezum need to get hyperloop actually working.
Subscribe to pluspluspodcast, Motherboard's new show about the people and machines that are building our future.