A futuristic transport system envisioned by Elon Musk. A wave of international students striving to make it real. And a violent encounter in the Silicon Prairie.
January 29, 2017 was a warm winter day in southern California, USA. The sky was hazy, and white light bounced off the road running between SpaceX headquarters and the ass-end of a Costco. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, standing at a lectern next to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, called this paved slice of post-industrial heaven “the cradle of aerospace”. I had come for a glimpse of the future — not in the hangars housing the company’s beautiful minds and rocket ships, but in the pipeline-like tube directly behind the mayor and Musk. Six feet in diameter, it ran on a 1.6km track adjacent to the SpaceX complex. “Today”, Garcetti said, “we are looking at the very first Hyperloop pods. This is the future of transportation”. I was among 2000 sweaty technophiles packed onto two sets of metallic grandstands at the finals of the first-ever SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. Also on site were 800 members of 27 competing teams, mainly from academic institutions. The finalists had been distilled from more than 1200 applicants around the world. That day, only three of the teams would successfully run their pods on the SpaceX Hyperloop test track. Like many Californians, I’d been thrilled when the high-speed rail project, Proposition 1A, passed in 2008. It meant we would finally have a bullet train connecting LA to San Francisco in under three hours — normally at least a seven-hour car trip. Musk hated the idea, so he outlined an alternative scheme, called Hyperloop, that he presented as an open-source white paper in 2013. In Musk’s vision, passengers would pay $20 to board levitating, capsule-like vehicles, called “pods”, that would zip through tubes on a bed of air at a cruising speed of 1200km/h, just shy of the speed of sound. Total travel time between the two cities would be 35 minutes, and the environmentally sustainable system would supposedly cost less than 10 percent of Prop 1A’s $64 billion budget. In the four years that followed, several companies assembled around the idea. Yet none had managed to build pods, which raised 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 realised”. The crowd buzzed, high on the possibilities of yet another Elon Musk dream-wave. After the speeches, observers finally got a chance to see in action a few of the 27 prototypes. Cameras mounted inside the tube recorded the pods’ runs, with the feeds projected on nearby flatscreens. It took each pod more than 30 minutes to load and depressurise; as I waited, I walked down the road where the teams had their booths. Here was Keio Alpha, a cash-strapped team that had smuggled its miniature pod from Tokyo in a carry-on bag. There was Delft University of Technology, a Dutch team awash in corporate sponsorship. I spotted Carnegie Mellon and MIT but was quickly drawn to the University of Cincinnati booth, where the 30 students on the Hyperloop UC team couldn’t stop smiling. Most of them were from India, though others hailed from Jordan and Vietnam. “We were the first to achieve static levitation”, said 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: being an international student from, say, India or Jordan, and living in red state Ohio in 2017.
Hyperloop UC was no anomaly; 20 of the 27 teams represented US schools, several of them in states that had tilted Trump. Many teams were stocked with international talent, mostly from India — which makes sense. During the 2015–2016 school year, more than 1 million international students attended US universities, most coming from China or India to study science or engineering. I wasn’t surprised to see that reflected at the competition, but the timing made it poignant. Just two days earlier, after a campaign brimming with anti-immigrant rhetoric, President Donald Trump had signed a travel ban on citizens from six Muslim-majority countries. Granted, the executive order didn’t directly affect the UC students. None came from the banned countries, and only one is Muslim, but Trump has repeatedly criticised 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 US after graduation. Plus, Indians are often viewed as Middle Eastern terrorists by America’s racist immigration foes — who, as Aziz Ansari said on Saturday Night Live the day after Trump’s inauguration, are “not usually geography buffs”. The afternoon of January 29, the streets were hot at Los Angeles International Airport as protesters there demanded the release of travellers detained under the ban. And here I was, a stone’s throw from America’s neo-industrial darling Elon Musk, South African immigrant and one-time international student turned unapologetic advisor to the new president. As I chatted with the UC students, an approaching scrum behind me captured their attention. In a bubble created by SpaceX PR cadets and a towering bodyguard, Musk floated from booth to booth, talking shop with the star-struck contestants. I drifted away, more fascinated by the students and their stories than by the technology. I thought of them again a few weeks later, after I learned that a gunman in suburban Kansas City had shot two 32-year-old Indian engineers in a bar. Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani had both attended grad school in the US before landing jobs at Garmin, the world leader in commercial navigation technology, which snagged them coveted H-1B visas. Kuchibhotla and Madasani were, in a sense, the Hyperloop UC students seven years from now: brilliant engineers who left home seeking the American dream, hungry to innovate and change the world. As the gunman approached them that evening, he yelled, “Get out of my country!” Then he pulled the trigger. Hyperloop sounds 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 this drag, which is why aeroplanes travel at high altitudes, where the air is thinner. However, air can be thinned in an enclosed space, which increases speed and energy efficiency on the ground. Futurists have been evolving and patenting versions of the transportation system since 1915, but thanks to his company Tesla and its commitment to solar, Musk is America’s leading innovator in alternative energy and transportation. So, when he described a netzero-energy transportation system that zooms through solar-panel-lined tubes — dialled to the atmospheric-pressure equivalent of flying at an altitude above 150 000 feet, connecting two of the nation’s great cities in less time than it takes to fly — it had a profound ripple effect. Musk’s 2013 white paper, “Hyperloop Alpha”, reached Dhaval Shiyani, Hyperloop UC’s eventual captain, two years after its release. A 26-year-old fluid-dynamics researcher in the University of Cincinnati Aerospace lab, he was working the graveyard shift in dorm security when he stumbled upon the document online. This is something that could and should happen, he thought, so why hadn’t it? Shortly after Musk announced the inaugural Hyperloop competition on Twitter in June 2015, Shiyani began to pitch it to friends in the engineering department. Eventually he gathered a group of five classmates, all of them from India, 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”, he says. Born and raised in Mumbai, Shiyani always wanted to be an astronaut; growing up in one of the world’s most densely populated cities could make anyone want to rocket through thin air and float above the mayhem. He read up on Neil Armstrong and the early Apollo missions. As the years passed, Shiyani’s life swirled with Americana. First came classic pop culture: Friends and Seinfeld. Then Steve Jobs released the iPod, Shiyani’s first true love, and his GPS was locked on the US. “It was the fairy-tale story”, he says. “It’s where all the great inventions seem to come from. It’s the land where your dreams come true.” Hyperloop UC’s initial 2015 meetings were all high-concept. Nobody had built a tube or a pod. Shiyani was confident his team could scratch out a workable system for their first filing in the competition, but if they were to be selected to present their concept to the 80-judge panel at Texas A&M in January 2016, they needed cash and more brainpower. Shiyani knew whom to call. Sid Thatham, 26, landed at the University of Cincinnati from Chennai in 2012 to study engineering, only to discover he was a born connector. Thatham was everywhere on campus. He tapped into nearly every student group, became student body president and befriended university vice president Santa Ono. All this in addition to working toward a Master’s degree in chemical engineering while pursuing an MBA. Still, Thatham found room in his schedule for Hyperloop. It was the kind of opportunity that had inspired him to study here. “The US is still the land of opportunity”, says Thatham, who became the team’s business lead. “You can work on futuristic, life-changing things. That’s how lots of international students see it.” Instead of mimicking Musk’s LA-to-SF blueprint, Shiyani, Thatham and friends detailed a Hyperloop Midwest that would connect Cincinnati to Chicago in 30 minutes. Competition was stiff, but Hyperloop UC survived two cuts and was invited to Texas as one of 124 teams selected. The teammates perfected their presentation on the 30-hour road trip to College Station, stopping in a Starbucks for a vital wi-fi infusion. Their proposal impressed the judging panel, which included faculty members and SpaceX engineers. They made the finals but didn’t finish in the top five, which would have provided seed money to start building a pod. So Hyperloop UC had to raise its six-figure budget from scratch. Thatham knew from his experience in student government that money was often buried in department budgets, so he went mining for it. He tweeted Ono from Texas and met with him as soon as he returned. As a result, the team scored $50 000.
The engineering school also kicked in five figures, as did the provost. Meanwhile, Shiyani filled out the technical team, and two local family-owned manufacturers signed on to provide materials and guidance: Tri-State Fabricators built the pod’s frame at no cost, and Cincinnati Incorporated sourced materials and provided guidance. All of which set the stage for an epic all-nighter leading up to the pod’s unveiling at UC’s alumni centre on October 17, 2016. The team knew that no pod had yet achieved levitation. This was an opportunity to snag an engineering first. For much of the pizza and caffeine-fuelled session, there were no errors, yet no joy. Finally, just after nine AM, the pod rose. It floated only a few millimetres, but levitation had been achieved. The team went wild. At two PM, Shiyani and Thatham unveiled their pod in front of their teammates, university trustees, manufacturing partners and state-wide media. 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 become a point of pride for the entire city. Somewhere outside that bubble, a bitter presidential campaign rumbled, but inside the alumni centre, Democrats, Republicans, native-born Americans and immigrants had come together to achieve something unprecedented, and they left the unveiling believing their team had a chance at winning the whole damn thing. Flash forward four months to the suburbs of north-east Kansas. Olathe, a city of 133 000 and the seat of Johnson County, is set roughly 30 kilometres south-west of Kansas City and is pure Rockwell 2.0. The air is fresh, the 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 now the centre of the Silicon Prairie, an area that spreads like golden grain across Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. Families from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East have moved in, and Olathe’s school district teaches students who collectively speak 84 different languages. Indians make up the largest immigrant group in the county, which explains the spice shops and restaurants, the Sikh and Hindu temples, and the Bollywood hits at the local AMC theatre. Most international residents work at major corporations such as Sprint, Cerner, Honeywell and of course Garmin, Olathe’s homegrown navigation-technology firm and the city’s second-largest employer in 2015. Its steel-and-glass headquarters are filled with industrial-design studios, engineering labs and flight simulators — and it’s just down the road from Austins, Olathe’s most popular sports bar. That’s where Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, friends who worked in Garmin’s aviation group, landed around six PM on February 22. The two well-known regulars, nicknamed by staff “the Jameson guys” after their preferred sipping whisky, sat at a table on a small, sheltered A-frame patio strung with white Christmas lights to enjoy a smoke. “That was our place to hang out after work”, Madasani tells me. They had originally 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 says. “He was my family.” Moments after they arrived at Austins, 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 reportedly 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 master’s 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 US on valid H-1B visas. In recent years that program has been tainted by loopholes that enabled Indian outsourcing agencies to bring over foreign-educated workers to replace American staffers at reduced salaries. That has led to midlife layoffs for many Americans, who have occasionally been asked to help train their replacements. Instead of closing that loophole or refining an otherwise productive program that has enabled US-educated engineers such as Kuchibhotla and Madasani to establish residency and contribute to the American economy, Trump vowed time and again during the campaign to dismantle the H-1B program. With the energy spoiled, the guys asked for their check, but according to one of the bar’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 ‘We have your back’”, Adams says. The men were touched, and since they weren’t carrying any cash, they ordered another round on a credit card so they could tip the staff. What was ugly had turned beautiful, and they wanted to show their gratitude. They were still at their table 30 minutes later when Purinton returned. This time he walked straight toward the patio, wearing a white scarf over his mouth and holding a gun. 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 had been hiding under a table, counting gunshots. Assuming Purinton was out of bullets, Grillot chased him as he headed 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 men, who were rushed to KU Medical Center in Kansas City. Purinton resurfaced at an Applebee’s in Clinton, Missouri, where he confessed to the bartender that he had just killed “two Middle Eastern men” and was on the run. The bartender kept him calm while she secretly dialled the authorities. Around the same time, police drove to Kuchibhotla’s home. They rang the doorbell and informed his wife, Sunayana Dumala, that her husband was dead. Like gunshots 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 temples. A candlelight vigil was held at First Baptist Church. Garmin held its own memorial two days after the incident, and a temporary shrine was set up in front of Austins, where mourners placed flowers. The first bouquet came from Kuchibhotla’s family in India — an offering to the bar’s staff and owners, 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 to investigate the incident as a hate crime. Whether or not those charges are filed, hate does appear to be the primary motive, and you can add it to an expanding blotter. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation’s leading antidiscrimination 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 to 50 incidents per month is typical; she believes the recent increase has to do with the political discourse peddled by Trump and his supporters. “We’ve been tracking the relationship between political rhetoric and hate crime statistics for some time”, she says, “and we’ve noticed when a population has been demonised by popular political figures there tends to be an uptick in hate crimes”. I arrived in Olathe five weeks after the shooting and spoke to dozens of people across the ethnic and political spectrums still shaken by the violence. I visited a mosque where immigrants from Algeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Egypt gather to pray. It’s not lost on them that Purinton’s bullets were meant for Muslims. Still, a poster decorated with hearts, left at the mosque’s doorstep after the shooting, hangs on a wall inside. It reads, in part, YOU BELONG. Back in Cincinnati, the Hyperloop UC team regroups after a series of setbacks cost them the competition in California. Sid Thatham’s schedule is so full he seldom goes home to the two-bedroom apartment he shares with three friends. He has eight classes and two part-time jobs, continues to lead Hyperloop UC’s business unit and remains involved in student government, which is why he sleeps on his office floor and showers in the gym four days a week. But he never complains, 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 says. Those on student visas have 60 days to either 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 centres. They can put you in touch with people with job openings, but will they be able to hire international students?” Some of that depends on the president.
On April 18, Trump signed an executive order that placed the H-1B visa in jeopardy. “You feel like you have a chip on your shoulder”, Thatham says. “You have to keep proving yourself at every stage. I just have to keep working as hard as I can and hope it pays off.” The departure of people like Thatham, who in April won the University of Cincinnati’s Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence, is unlikely to benefit the US 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 H-1B opportunities may also discourage foreign students, who, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, contributed more than $30 billion to the US economy last year and created or supported more than 400 000 jobs. Those are just the hard numbers. Although the majority of the Hyperloop UC team members are Indian, several Americans jumped onboard early, and even more are involved now. Julian Gregory, a Cincinnati native and undergraduate industrial-design student who joined as a freshman in 2016, would like to see his teammates have the option to remain stateside and compete. “These guys are geniuses”, he says. “They’re coming to our country to contribute something innovative, and I don’t think that should be understated or undervalued.” Like Thatham, Shiyani is set to graduate this summer. Whether or not he’s granted an H-1B visa, his efforts will live on. Although Hyperloop UC won’t be at Hyperloop Pod Competition II in August, the team hopes to build their own Hyperloop-like link in Cincinnati, between the university’s east and west campuses. The pods won’t travel at high speeds, but they will levitate, and with the school already behind the project, it’s a good bet it will be the world’s first functional transportation system of its kind. Meanwhile, Shiyani is working to set up what he calls an “Advanced Transportation Research Center” at the engineering school. It will focus on pods, drones and autonomous and electric cars. Soon the university will be better equipped to educate American and international engineers and to shape the future of transportation. All because an ambitious Indian kid working the graveyard shift read the futurist musings of another immigrant engineer who had his own American dream.
By Adam Skolnick
Illustration by Matthew Lyons