SpaceX's 2020 Hyperloop competition is getting much tougher says Elon Musk

Elon Musk has big plans for next year's Hyperloop competition, with the SpaceX founder promising a significantly more challenging course for startups looking to commercialize the technology. The competition was announced back in 2015, a way for SpaceX to support student teams developing Hyperloop technologies and, specifically, the pods capable of traveling at high speed through the tunnels.

For 2019, the challenge cranked up a little. Maximum speed remained the key measurement – along with safe deceleration that wouldn't see the pod crash out – but participants needed to also design and implement their own communications systems. The Pods also had to self-propel after the main run had been completed, and they had left the far end of the tube.

To test that, SpaceX built a section of Hyperloop tube on its campus in Hawthorne, California. Though a fraction of the length that Musk and others envisage Hyperloops eventually stretching to present a real alternative to other types of transportation, the roughly mile-long course is nonetheless full scale in other respects. It's approximately six feet in its outer diameter, and basically a straight run.

This weekend, competitors brought their pods along to try them out. Winners of the challenge for 2019 were TUM Hyperloop from Munich, Bavaria. Its pod hit a top speed of 463 km/h (288 mph).

For 2020, though, the challenge is going to get a lot more tough. For a start, the course is getting a whole lot longer. According to Musk, SpaceX will construct a full 10 km (6.2 mile) tube.

That will have a curve, too, unlike the relatively straight tube currently in use. Most significantly, it'll be in vacuum rather than unpressurized. The advantage to that is less air resistance, which adds up to more potential speed. At the same time, though, it demands pods that are airtight, since passengers probably don't want to hold their breath for their entire journey, and any outgassing could inadvertently propel the pod toward the walls of the tunnel.

Hyperloop has been one of the more aggressively futuristic plans of Musk's, since the outspoken billionaire first revealed his ideas for a high-speed vacuum tube transportation system in 2012. Musk envisaged routes replacing air, train, or road travel, cutting journey times considerably by moving passengers underground. However, the idea hasn't been met with universal acclaim, with some questioning the practicality of a network of tunnels.

Adding to the potential confusion, the exact nature of how tunnels might be used can vary. While pressurized capsules are the original occupants of each Hyperloop tube, and indeed the subject of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, Tesla is also looking to use tunnels for its cars on Autopilot. Indeed, Musk's Boring Company is already drilling out tunnels under LA, which would not be vacuum sealed and would instead allow autonomous cars to move between points in the city at high speed, bypassing surface traffic.