High-Speed American Dreams

Illustration by Matthew Lyons

January 29, 2017 was one of those sneaky warm winter days in Southern California. The sky was hazy, and ill-tempered white light bounced off the road that ran between SpaceX, and the ass-end of a Costco. This paved-over slice of post-industrial heaven is what LA mayor Eric Garcetti just called “the cradle of aerospace,” and where I’d come for a glimpse of the future. Not in the hangars housing the beautiful minds and rocket ships of SpaceX, or the Costco dumpsters – I was focused on a tube, six feet in diameter, that looked like a pipeline. It ran east, beginning directly behind the mayor, who spoke at a standard issue lectern, and the soon to be introduced Elon Musk to the entrance of his SpaceX complex, a mile away.

“Today,” Garcetti continued, “we are looking at the very first Hyperloop pods. This is the future of transportation.”

I was among about 2,000 sweaty technophiles, packed onto two sets of metallic grandstands, at the finals of SpaceX’s first ever Hyperloop Competition; also on site were 800 students from 27 schools competing for the prize. The finalists had been distilled from over 1200 applicants around the world.

Like many Californians, I’d been thrilled when Proposition 1A, the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act, passed in 2008. It meant we would finally have a bullet train connecting LA to San Francisco in under three hours. Musk hated the idea—so he outlined a different LA-SF scheme, named it Hyperloop, and presented it as an open source white paper in 2012. It promised a fifth mode of transportation: passengers would pay $20 to board levitating pods that would zip through tubes on a bed of air at a cruising speed of 760 mph, just shy of the speed of sound. Total travel time would be 35 minutes, and the system could be built, with less than 10% of Prop 1A’s nearly $64 billion budget, to be the most environmentally sustainable form of travel ever.

In the four years that followed, a few companies assembled around the idea, yet by January 2017 none had managed to build pods, which begged the question, will we ever get to enjoy this magical ride?

Enter the international student body.

“What this [competition] is intended to do is to encourage innovation in transport technology,” Musk said that afternoon, “to get people to think about doing things in a way that’s not just a repeat of the past, but to explore the boundaries of physics and see what’s really possible. I think we’ll find it’s more incredible than we ever realized.”

The crowd buzzed, high on the possibilities of yet another brilliant Elon Musk dream-wave, and after the speeches, observers finally got a chance to see a few of the 27 prototypes in action. The tube’s interior was mounted with an array of eight cameras that projected pods in motion on a nearby checkerboard of flat-screens. Unfortunately, it took a minimum of 30 minutes to open the tube, load each pod, and depressurize it, so I walked down the road where the various teams had booths. Here was Keio Alpha, a cash-strapped Japanese team who smuggled their miniature pod from Tokyo in a carry-on. There was Delft University of Technology, a Dutch team awash in corporate sponsorship and top contenders for the crown. I spotted legendary engineering schools, Carnegie Mellon and MIT, but was quickly drawn to the University of Cincinnati booth, because the 25 students couldn’t stop smiling. Most of them were from India, though there were others from Jordan, Vietnam, and the United States.

“We were the first to achieve static levitation,” said Pushkaraj Bhagwat, a 26-year-old structural engineering student from Pune. No wonder they were giddy. They’d made a vehicle float on air! Still, my mind drifted toward another phenomenon: the notion of being an international student from, say, India or Jordan, and living in a red state, like Ohio, in 2017.

The Hyperloop UC team was no anomaly. 20 of the 27 teams represented American schools, several of them in states that tilted Trump, yet their teams were stocked with international talent, the majority from India – which made sense. During the 2015-2016 school year, over one million international students attended American universities, most coming from China or India to study science or engineering. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that reflection, but the timing made it feel poignant. Just two days before, after a campaign awash in anti-immigrant, Make America Great Again rhetoric, Trump had signed his travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim majority countries.

Granted, Trump’s order didn’t directly impact the UC students. They weren’t from any of the banned countries, and only one of them was Muslim, but Trump had also repeatedly criticized the 26-year-old H-1B visa program, which has become a popular way for companies to hire skilled high-tech foreign employees and for international students to work in the U.S. after graduation. Plus, America’s nativist hate criminals have an illustrious history of treating Indian immigrants and Indian Americans as suspected Middle Eastern terrorists. As the great Aziz Ansari said from the SNL stage on Trump’s inauguration night, “Yeah, they’re not usually geography buffs.”

That afternoon, the streets were hot at nearby LAX where peaceful protesters were demanding the release of those detained by customs. And here I was a stone’s throw from America’s neo-industrial darling, Elon Musk, an immigrant from South Africa and one time international student turned unapologetic advisor to the new president.

“How are things in Cincinnati these days?” I asked the UC students. “Do you feel safe?”

They acknowledged the shifting political climate, but they were data-driven optimists, and people who cross oceans, inspired to push the laws of physics, don’t often tune into the drumbeat of nativism. They’re too damn busy. “We are a tad bit worried,” Bhagwat explained, still smiling, “but we believe in the system.”

An approaching scrum behind me captured his attention. It was led by a towering bodyguard and rounded off by SpaceX PR cadets who created the bubble within which Musk floated from booth to booth to talk shop with the star-struck students. I faded away and soon left SpaceX less fascinated by the technology than the students and their stories.

I thought of them again a few weeks later, after I learned that a gunman in suburban Kansas City shot two 32-year-old engineers in a neighborhood bar. Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani were both from India and attended grad school in the United States before landing jobs at Garmin, the world leader in commercial navigation technology, which enabled them to snag coveted H-1B working visas. They were, in effect, the HyperloopUC students seven years from now: brilliant would-be engineers who left home seeking the American dream, hungry to innovate and help change the world.

As the gunman approached them that evening, he yelled, “Get out of my country!” Then he pulled the trigger.

Hyperloop may sound futuristic, but the concept isn’t new. It’s based on a simple law of physics: momentum creates resistance or drag. Most of the fuel consumed by any vehicle is burned to overcome drag, which is why airplanes travel at high altitudes, where the air is thinner. However, air can be thinned in an enclosed space too, which would increase speed and energy efficiency on the ground.

Robert Goddard, an American aerospace pioneer, knew this when he filed a patent for a vacuum train in the 1910s. H.M. Salter, a researcher for the Rand Corporation, offered something similar in 1972, and in 1999, futurist Daryl Oster’s company ET3 patented a system in which six-person-pods could travel in tubes at speeds above 370mph. Thanks to Tesla and his commitment to solar, however, Musk is the world’s leading innovator in alternative energy and transportation, and when he described a net-zero energy transportation system that zooms through solar panel-lined tubes dialed to the same atmospheric pressure as the surface of Mars, connecting two of the nation’s great cities in less time than it takes to fly, there was a profound ripple effect.

A copy of Musk’s white paper washed up to the desk of Dhaval Shiyani three years later. A 26-year-old fluid dynamics researcher in the University of Cincinnati Aerospace Lab with a mop of dark hair, he was working a graveyard shift in dorm security when he stumbled upon Hyperloop Alpha online. This is something that could and should happen, he thought, so why hadn’t it? Over the next few months Shiyani often contemplated Hyperloop, and when Musk suddenly announced the first ever Hyperloop competition on Twitter, Shiyani began pitching it to friends in the engineering department.

“We can possibly design a new thing,” he told them. “Let’s explore it and see where it goes.” Eventually he gathered a group of five talented Indian classmates around a conference table. “All of us knew in the back of our minds that if there is any place in the world where we can get this done, it is America.”

Born and raised in Mumbai, Shiyani always wanted to be an astronaut. One of the world’s most densely populated cities could inspire anyone to want to rocket through thin air and float above the mayhem, and he read up on Neil Armstrong and those early Apollo missions. As the years went by his life continued to swirl with Americana. First came classic pop-cultural soft porn: Friends and Seinfeld. Then Steve Jobs released the iPod, Shiyani’s first true love, and his GPS was locked on America. “It was the fairy tale story,” he said. “It’s where all the great inventions seemed to come from. It’s the land where your dreams come true.”

The initial HyperloopUC meetings in 2015 were all high concept. Nobody had ever built a tube or a pod. Shiyani was confident he and his friends could scratch out a workable system for the first filing, a team’s answer to Hyperloop Alpha, but if they were to be selected to present their concept to a panel of 64 judges at Texas A&M in January 2016, they needed more brain power and some cash. Shiyani knew who to call.

Sid Thatham, 26, landed on campus from Chennai in the fall of 2012 to study engineering only to discover he was a born connector. Like a latter-day Max Fischer, Thatham was everywhere on campus. He was tapped into nearly every student group, part of student government, and he’d even become friends with the university president, Santa Ono. All of this in addition to working towards a master’s degree in chemical engineering while simultaneously pursuing an MBA. Still, Thatham found room in his schedule for Hyperloop. It was the kind of opportunity that inspired him to study here. “The U.S. is still the land of opportunity,” Thatham said. “You can work on futuristic, life changing things. That’s how lots of international students see it.”

Instead of mimicking Musk’s LA-SF blueprint, the team detailed a Midwest Hyperloop that would connect Cincinnati to Chicago in less than 30 minutes. Competition was stiff. 1200 teams from universities in 22 countries filed paperwork, but HyperloopUC survived three cuts. Shiyani and his friends were invited to Texas along with 124 other teams. They perfected their presentation on the 30-hour road trip to College Station, stopping in a random Starbucks for a vital wifi infusion, and their proposal dazzled the judges, which included 46 SpaceX engineers and faculty. They made the finals, but didn’t finish in the top five, which would have come with seed money to start building their pod. Thatham and HyperloopUC had to raise their six figure budget from scratch.

Thatham knew from student government that money was often buried in department budgets, and he mined for it. He Tweeted President Ono from Texas, met with him as soon as he returned, and the team scored a HyperloopUC bank account flush with $50,000. The engineering school also kicked in five figures; so did the Provost.

Meanwhile, Shiyani filled out the technical team. Gaureng Gupta, a 26-year-old aerospace researcher, who as a boy made a hobby of dismantling his father’s favorite gadgets, took the lead on electronics. Purva Bhatnagar, a computer scientist from Lucknow, one of a handful of HyperloopUC women, streamlined the software. Two local, family-owned manufacturers also signed on. Tri-State Fabricators built the pod’s frame at no cost, and Cincinnati Incorporated helped source materials and provided indispensable guidance along the way. All of which set the stage for an epic all-nighter.

It happened the night before the team’s unveiling at the UC Alumni Center on October 17.  Shiyani and his teammates knew that no Hyperloop pod had yet achieved levitation, and this was an opportunity to snag an engineering first. In the engineering school’s automotive shop, known as the High Bay, the team gathered to wrap the frame in its carbon fiber skin and began wiring it as the clock struck midnight. Fortified by pizza and caffeine, Gupta’s crew soldered wires into custom printed circuit boards that connected to computer-programmed microprocessors, but as dawn approached the pod still wouldn’t fire. Gupta triple checked the wiring. Bhatnagar went through the code. There were no errors, yet no joy.

Morale was low in the High Bay. Shiyani didn’t want to present an aerodynamic, 500-pound paperweight, and was ready to cancel the event until Gupta discovered that some of the onboard batteries weren’t fully charged. Finally, just after 9am on October 17, the pod was placed on an I-beam, the entire team huddled around it. Gupta gave the thumbs up and initiated the system. There was a designed delay built in, and those 90 seconds stretched. Just when the team was losing hope, the pod started to hum, its magnets rotated, and the pod rose up. It was only a few millimeters above the beam – far from flying – but levitation had been achieved. The team went wild.

At 2pm the same day, Shiyani and Thatam unveiled their pod in front of their teammates, university trustees, statewide media, and their manufacturing partners. Everyone was floored. What began as a Shiyani thought bubble had encompassed dozens of students from all backgrounds, the school administration and private industry, and became a point of pride for the entire city. Somewhere outside that bubble, a bitter presidential campaign still rumbled, but inside the UC Alumni Center, Democrats, Republicans and immigrants had come together to achieve something never done before, and they left the unveiling believing their team had a chance at winning the whole damn thing. Had I been there that day and asked any of the locals if they feared for the students’ safety, they would have laughed in my face. These kids? Safe? Nothing could possibly happen to them in Cinicinnati. Which is a lot like how the people of Olathe, Kansas felt about their neighbors from India. Until last February.

Olathe, a city of 133,000 and the seat of Johnson County, is set roughly 20 miles southwest of Kansas City, and is pure Rockwell 2.0. The air is fresh, its shady streets are dotted with affordable single family homes sporting basketball hoops and American flags, and thanks to a two-decade infusion of tech capital it’s become the center of the Silicon Prairie, a multi-state quilt, which spreads like golden grain across Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. As a result, this old, agrarian Santa Fe Trail outpost is quite diverse. Families from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have moved in, and Olathe’s school district teaches students who grew up speaking 84 different languages. The largest immigrant group in the county are Indians, which explains the spice shops and restaurants, Sikh and Hindu temples, and why the local AMC theater screens Bollywood hits. Most international residents work at major corporations like Sprint, Cerner, Honeywell, and, of course, Garmin, Olathe’s homegrown navigation technology firm and the city’s second largest employer. Its steel and glass headquarters are filled with industrial design studios, engineering labs, and flight simulators – and it’s set just down the road from Austin’s, Olathe’s most popular sports bar. That’s where Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, friends who worked in Garmin’s aviation group, landed at around 6pm on February 22.

Garmin engineer Alok Madasani spoke to a crowd of hundreds at a vigil in Olathe, Kansas, four days after co-worker Srinivas Kuchibhotla was murdered in a local sports bar. “what happened that night was a senseless crime that took away my best friend,” Madasani said. The beloved regulars, nicknamed by staff as “the Jameson guys” thanks to their preferred sipping whiskey, sat at a table on a small, sheltered A-frame patio strung with white Christmas lights so they could enjoy a smoke. “That was our place to hang out after work,” Madasani told me. They’d met at Rockwell Collins, an Iowa engineering firm in 2008, and when Kuchibhotla landed a coveted job at Garmin in 2014, he recruited Madasani to join him. “He was more than a friend. He was my family.”

Moments after they arrived at Austin’s, Adam Purinton, 51, a Navy vet turned air traffic controller turned out-of-work IT specialist, bellied up to the bar. He nursed a beer before wandering out to the patio where he approached the engineers. He asked if they were in the country legally, and shouted a racial slur loud enough to attract attention. The guys ignored Purinton, and Madasani went inside to alert management. Another patron, Ian Grillot, 24, intervened and helped escort Purinton out.

Kuchibhotla, a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso with a masters in electrical engineering, and Madasani, who studied engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City were among the 100 or so Garmin employees in the U.S. on valid H-1B visas. In recent years, that program has been tainted by loopholes which have enabled Indian outsourcing agencies to bring over foreign-educated workers to replace American staff at reduced salaries. That’s led to thousands of midlife layoffs for American workers who have occasionally been asked to help train their replacements. Instead of closing that loophole or perfecting an otherwise productive program that has enabled American educated engineers like the Kuchibohtla and Madasani to establish residency and contribute to the American economy, Trump vowed time and again during the campaign to dismantle the H1-B program.

With the energy spoiled, the guys asked for their check, but according to one of Austin’s owners, Kirk Adams, another patron had already picked it up. Instead all the waitresses on staff came out to give them hugs. “It was their way of saying, hey, you don’t have anything to worry about,” Adams said. “We have your back here.” The men were touched, and since they weren’t carrying cash, ordered another round as a vehicle to tip the staff. What was ugly had turned beautiful and they wanted to show their gratitude. It was an unfortunate choice.

They were still at their table, 30 minutes later, when Purinton returned. This time he walked straight toward the patio, gun in hand. Before he could turn around Madasani heard someone yell, “He’s back with a gun, man!” Then Purinton said what he said, and started blasting. Kuchibhotla was hit three times. Madasani tried to escape and was shot once, through the thigh. Both men fell to the ground and Purinton took off running. Grillot, another Austin’s regular, had been hiding under a table counting gun shots. He’d assumed Purinton was out of bullets and chased after the shooter who was heading around the corner. After about 30 feet, Purinton turned and fired again. Grillot was shot through the hand, forearm, and chest, but would survive. Patrons and staff attended to the wounded who were rushed to KU Medical Center in Kansas City.

Purinton re-surfaced at an Applebee’s in Clinton, MO, where he confessed to the bartender that he had just killed “two Middle Eastern men” and was on the run. The astute bartender kept him calm, while she secretly dialed the authorities to turn him in. Around then, police drove to Kuchibhotla’s dream home. They rang the bell and informed his wife, Sunayna Dumala, that her husband was dead.

Like gun shots in the suburban night, word of the shooting echoed through the social media feeds of the local Indian community and in the halls of tech firms and local temples. A candlelight vigil was held at First Baptist Church. Garmin held their own memorial two days after the incident and a temporary shrine was set up in front of Austin’s, where mourners placed flowers. The first bouquet came from Kuchibhotla’s family in India. An offering to the bar’s staff and ownership; a gesture of shared grief.

Johnson County charged Purinton with first degree murder on February 23. He’s looking at 50 years with no parole. The FBI immediately began investigating the incident as a hate crime, and you can add it to an expanding blotter. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation’s leading anti-discrimination group, has recorded 1,863 “bias-related incidents” between election day and March 31. According to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, 40-50 incidents per month is normal, and she believes the uptick has to do with the political discourse perpetuated by President Trump and his supporters. “We’ve been tracking the relationship between political rhetoric and hate crime statistics for some time,” she said, “and we’ve noticed when a population has been demonized by popular political figures there tends to be an uptick in hate crimes.”

Whatever your feelings about the new president, and his #MAGA movement, it cannot be denied that immigration has been a familiar theme. He attacked the legitimacy of a Latino judge, dreamt up a “big, beautiful wall,” promised to ban refugees and visitors from Muslim majority countries and he attacked the H-1B visa program. Johnson County’s immigrant community has flourished thanks to H-1B visas.

I arrived in Olathe five weeks after the shooting and spoke to dozens still shaken by the violence. “I don’t think anybody expected that it would happen here,” said a woman who I’ll call Meera. I’d met her at the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center, where candles flicker and priests chant at an altar 15 minutes from Olathe. She was so frightened that she withheld her true identity, but her point of view was reflected throughout Johnson County, and across the ethnic and political spectrum. I heard it in mosques, at City Hall, and in Garmin headquarters.

Bali Kaur Tiwana, a mother of two young men in their early 20s who she raised in Olathe, helped establish a Sikh temple in the heart of town with her trucker husband. Every night their Gurdwara hums with kirtan, and serves free meals to all comers, including to out of town reporters looking for a scoop. Per Sikh tradition her boys had never cut their hair or shaved, but after the shooting they stopped wearing turbans and opted to blend in. “I’m scared right now,” Tiwana said. “It used to be when my kids go to the gym I’m never scared, but now if they play basketball late, I can’t sleep.”

I also visited a local mosque where immigrants from Algeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, gathered and prayed. It was not lost on them that Purinton’s bullets were meant for Muslims. They used to keep their doors wide open, but they’re always locked now, accessible only by code or key, even during prayer time. A poster decorated with hearts and left at their doorstep in the aftermath hangs on the wall inside. It reads, in part, YOU BELONG.

The Olathe shooting was big news in India, and sparked calls into Cincinnati from concerned parents. By the time I met Sid Thatham on campus last March, I knew HyperloopUC hadn’t won the competition. Their microcontrollers had burned out which set them back, and by the time they got their pod working again there wasn’t time to get SpaceX approval for a test run in the tube. Only three teams earned that privilege and the top speed that day was capped at around 60 mph. However, the UC team remained viable and were designing a 2.0 version of their pod. In the meantime, Thatham described life as an international student in the age of #MAGA. His schedule was so full he seldom went home to his two-bedroom apartment which he shared with three friends. He had eight courses, two part-time jobs, still led the Hyperloop business unit, and remained involved in student government, which is why he slept on his office floor and showered in the gym four days a week. But he never complained because he knows the rule.

Momentum creates drag.

His reward for all this hard work is a ticking clock. “It starts the minute I get my degree,” he said. Those on student visas have 60 days to get a job and the coveted H-1B visa that comes with it, or head home. He’s scheduled to graduate in August. “The school has career development centers. They can put you in touch with people with job openings, but will they be able to hire international students?” Some of that depends upon the new president.

On April 18, Trump kept a campaign promise and signed an executive order that placed the visa Thatham and many of his Hyperloop teammates have coveted for years, in jeopardy. “You feel like you have a chip on your shoulder,” Thatham said, “you have to keep proving yourself at every stage. I just have to keep working as hard as I can, and hope that it pays off.”

The departure of people like Thatham, who in May won the university’s Presidential Medal for Graduate Student Excellence, isn’t likely to benefit our economy. According to a 2016 report from the Kauffman Foundation, “more than half of America’s “unicorn” start-ups have at least one immigrant founder, and immigrants are nearly twice as likely as the native-born to start a new company.” The loss of the H-1B may also discourage foreign students who, according to the Association of International Educators, contributed over $30 billion to the economy last year and created or supported over 400,000 jobs.

Those are just the hard numbers. Although the HyperloopUC team was made up of a majority Indian students, several Americans jumped on board early and even more are involved now. Julian Gregory, a Cincinnati native and undergraduate industrial design student, joined up as a freshman in 2016, and he would like to see his teammates have the option to remain stateside and compete. “These guys are geniuses,” he said, “they’re coming to our country to contribute something innovative, and I don’t think that should be understated or undervalued.”

“We bring the brightest minds to this country,” lamented Cincinnati Incorporated’s Justin Atkins, a self-described fiscal conservative and UC alum, “we educate them and then we make it difficult for them to stay.”

Like Thatham, Dhaval Shiyani is set to graduate this summer, but whether or not he’s granted an H-1B visa, his efforts will live on. HyperloopUC won’t compete at SpaceX during Hyperloop Competition II in August. Instead they hope to build their own Hyperloop link in Cincinnati, between East and West campus. Pods won’t travel at high speeds, but they will levitate, and with the school already behind them, it’s a good bet theirs will be the first functional Hyperloop system in the world. Meanwhile, Shiyani is collaborating with Hyperloop UC’s faculty advisor, Shaaban Abdullah, and others to set up what he calls an “Advanced Transportation Research Center” at the engineering school. It will focus on autonomous and electric cars, Hyperloop, and drones. Soon the University of Cincinnati will be better set up to educate American and International engineers, and shape the future of transportation. All because an ambitious Indian kid working a graveyard shift, read the futurist musings of another immigrant engineer, who had his own American dream.