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21st of August 2017

Automotive



Elon Musk's Boring Company Just Hit the Boring Part

It sounds like the plot of a James Bond movie: A charismatic billionaire wants to build a network of high tech tunnels beneath America's cities and slay an enemy in the process. But this isn't a summer blockbuster. It's Elon Musk's latest Big Idea. In addition to building electric vehicles, launching rockets, and colonizing Mars, Musk wants to reinvent tunneling and destroy soul-sucking traffic.

Just how Musk's latest venture, the wonderfully named Boring Company, will do that remains rather opaque, perhaps even to Musk himself. “We’re just going to figure out what it takes to improve tunneling speed by, I think, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 percent,” he said in February, with the nonchalance of someone ordering a latte. “We have no idea what we’re doing—I want to be clear about that.”

"We have no idea what we're doing" are not words that reassure city planners, let alone the folks elected to represent the people of Hawthorne. That's the Los Angeles suburb where SpaceX—Musk's space venture—is located, and the home of the Boring Company's first big dig.

And so it was that the Hawthorne city council wanted just a bit more information as it pondered a Boring Company proposal to extend that tunnel two miles beyond the SpaceX property line. Musk dispatched a lieutenant to brief the council during last week's meeting.

“Although we are very excited about this innovative project, we want to make sure that we follow the legal procedures that we as a city council were elected to follow,” Mayor pro tempore Haidar Awad said before presiding over a forum marked by general enthusiasm but moments of wariness. And even if the city seems genuinely excited by the project, the 42-minute meeting provided a sense of just how many hurdles the budding infrastructure firm must clear to complete its test tunnel—much less a network of tunnels filled with car-toting sleds or pods flinging people about at nearly the speed of sound.

[embedded content]First, the Why

If digging tunnels seems grandiose, even for Musk, he would like you to remember that the average LA driver spends more than 100 hours slogging through hellish traffic each year. Musk, never known to do anything the easy way, thinks the solution is to duplicate the city's vast network of roads underground. Building tunnels in as many as 30 layers, he says, creates more than enough space to overcome the rule of induced demand that says expanding roads simply creates more congestion.

For short distances, Musk imagines cars taking an elevator underground, then zipping along on “electric skates” riding on rails at up to 125 mph. (It is worth noting that a civil engineer suggested to my colleague Alex Davies that Musk's idea belongs "in the bullshit category.") For longer trips—say New York to Washington, DC—the Boring Company expects its tunnels to house a hyperloop. For the three or four of you who haven't heard, hyperloop is Musk's idea for whisking people between cities in levitating tubes shooting from one place to another at about 700 mph in near-vacuum.

Say hello to Godot, the Boring Company's tunnel boring machine.

The Boring Company

The key to making these things work is tunneling. And the key to making tunneling work, Musk says, is improving the speed, efficiency, and cost of digging big ol' holes. Of course he's very optimistic about his prospects for this. "It's quite difficult to dig tunnels normally," he said in a February TED Talk. "I think we need to have at least a tenfold improvement in the cost per mile of tunneling." Eager to make that happen, Musk bought a used boring machine in May and rechristened it “Godot”. But he isn't waiting.

OK, So What’s This Tunnel?

The Boring Company wants to build a 2-mile test tunnel 20 to 24 feet underground. The plan calls for making it about 12 feet wide, or about the width of a standard highway lane. No need to make it any wider, SpaceX senior director of construction Brett Horton told the city council, because those car-carrying skates don't need a shoulder.

For all his talk about revolutionizing everything but revolutions, Musk isn't doing anything radical here. The Boring Company will use thoroughly conventional tunneling. “This is a proven machine that has already done a tunnel in Sunnyvale,” California, Horton said. “Same segment design, same tunnel-boring machine design. We’re not reinventing the wheel on that.” Digging this tunnel, he said, would let the Boring Company learn about the capabilities of the machine and find ways of making improvements.

Horton also told the council members that the tunneling process, which should take just eight months, would prove the company can build “safely, reliably, and for significant cost savings to traditional tunneling projects.”

How Do They Build It?

Horton took pains to explain to Hawthorne officials that construction would not disrupt anyone. Most of the work is slated for SpaceX’s campus (where, for example, the dirt gets dumped). Godot will be working so deeply underground that no one will feel it, Horton says. (Yes, that's possible if the ground is soft enough, construction experts say.) And the company will of course carefully monitor the ground level to make sure the surface isn't shifting. No one wants any sudden sinkholes.

There's a lot of stuff buried underground, of course, and Horton said the Boring Company has reached out to 19 utilities that might have lines in the area. The untold miles of gas, electric, fiber-optic, sewer, and water lines crisscrossing under the nation's cities present a knotty problem for tunnels and tunneling, especially since they can shift when the ground starts moving. The implications of hitting any of these could be really, truly bad—imagine a city's drinking water suddenly polluted with raw sewage, or a vast swath of the population left in the dark. And you think a sinkhole is bad PR.

Horton spent a fair amount of time outlining the myriad ways the Boring Company has complied with safety regs. “We want this tunnel to be ridiculously safe,” he said. “I want to be able to take my little 5-year-old and 3-year-old in the tunnel to show it to them.” CalOSHA says it issued the permits required to complete the tunnel already built on SpaceX property, but it won't start the process for the expansion until the city approves it.

The city council seemed impressed by the approach, but expressed reservations. “We can’t say necessarily, for instance, the Boring Company will put people at ease,” Angie Reyes English said. “I know you like to move fast. We like to move assuredly that we’re doing everything in the correct and right manner.”

(The Boring Company did not respond to WIRED's questions about how it plans to advance boring technology, why it thinks it might avoid an environmental review, and whether it has started reaching out to the community.)

So What's Next?

Next steps for the Boring Company’s extended test tunnel: Finishing up outreach to utility companies. Answering additional written questions from council members. And, on August 22, going before the next boring council meeting, when it just might get an official go-ahead. “It’s a hopeful target date at this point,” City Manager Arnold Shadbehr said. “This is what SpaceX is seeking—this is why [Horton] is looking at me like that."

Then there’s the environmental review. When pressed by a city council member, Horton implied the Boring Company hopes to qualify for an exemption from the sometimes long, sometimes costly process that estimates how projects will affect the greater community. (The company says it has hired an environmental consultant.) “Because this is a test tunnel, because it's not meant for human occupancy and it's only a proof of concept, and also because all of the construction work is basically done on our private land, there is no cultural impact, there is no environmental impact, there is no business impact that this project will create," Horton said.

That might be a stretch. “LA is noted for subsurface contamination of all kinds,” says Thom Neff, a civil engineer who runs the consulting company OckhamKonsult. “You’ve got the tar sands, oil, natural gas—they’ve had explosions in tunnels in LA. I can’t imagine the agencies would let Musk do anything like that without a full-blown environmental report.”

But Hawthorne remains excited. “You’re knocking on the door of innovation that hasn’t happened ever,” said Awad, the mayor pro tempore. But before the Boring Company can bore, it must endure the boring task of digging through government bureaucracy.

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