If you’re a bit confused about Elon Musk’s plans to tunnel his way out of terrible LA traffic, you are not alone. Last week, Musk and his Boring Company, a venture devoted to speeding up and bringing down the costs of tunnel boring, sat down for an hour-long public informational meeting in a Los Angeles synagogue. The company theoretically chose the location because it is close to the proposed site for a 2.7-mile test tunnel in the city's Sepulveda Pass, where the Boring Company will test out (and maybe innovate) its new tunneling tech.
The location had a strategic purpose, too: The meeting, held in the darkest moments of an LA rush hour, was a pain in the ass to attend. “Wouldn’t it be better,” a quiet South African–accented voice might have whispered, “if you could jump inside a pod and go?”
Musk’s vision, if realized, would do just that, allowing future Angelenos to evade the city’s infamous traffic by hopping aboard 16-passenger pods, waiting at hundreds, if not thousands, of small parking-spot-sized stations throughout the city. Elevators would lower the pods down into a subterranean highway system, where they could reach speeds of 150 mph. “For tunnels, you can have hundreds of lanes,” Musk said. “There's no real limit." (The system would also be able to carry personal cars, like Teslas, though for a higher price.) He calls the system the Loop.
To get to this techno future, Musk wants to speed up the process of tunnel boring by a factor of 15 and reduce its costs by a factor of 10. He’ll do this, he says, not by reinventing the cutter head but by making smaller tweaks to tunnel-boring machines, the process of excavation, and muck removal. “A lot these things are really simple,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”
Some people in LA disagree. Two neighborhood groups, the Brentwood Residents Coalition and the Sunset Coalition, have already filed a lawsuit against the city for attempting to exempt the Sepulveda test tunnel from a formal environmental review.
Thus far, experts say, the ideas Musk has articulated aren’t exactly new. But they could have potential to speed up tunneling, which has seen little research-and-development enthusiasm in the US. (Europe, China, and Japan, by contrast, are great at tunneling.)
But even after last week’s hour of explanation and a smattering of written audience queries (selected by a Boring Company employee based on how many people voted for each), WIRED still has some questions about the Boring Company’s proposed test tunnel and the company’s grander vision for a cross-city transportation scheme. Let’s dig in on a few of Musk’s ideas.1
1. Make Tunnels Narrower to Reduce Cost
This could work, says Marte Gutierrez, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies underground tunneling for transportation at the Colorado School of Mines. “The cost of the tunnel goes up almost exponentially by diameter,” he says. “By making the tunnel smaller, you not only reduce the cost, you make it faster.”
2. Automate Tunnel Boring and Tunnel Support Construction
Gutierrez also buys this. “If you could do it as an automated production line system, like when you assemble cars, there is a lot of ground for improvement,” he says. He notes tunnelers should allow the ground to sit or “relax” before they build supports.
But the idea of automation in tunneling is far from new. “Automated segment technology now is extremely well-established,” says Gary Brierley, a civil engineer who has worked on tunneling projects for 50 years. Brierley doesn’t think it’s possible for anyone to get the sort of speed or efficiency gains Musk has targeted. “There’s no way to streamline that process,” he says.
3. Turn Muck Into Bricks, Right at the Tunnel’s Mouth
Brierley is skeptical. Muck removal usually doesn’t account for a significant portion of the price of a tunnel bore. What’s more, selling bricks—Musk suggests they could go for 10 cents per—ain’t easy.
“People who buy bricks, they want quality—you’re not going to buy something that comes off the back of a tunnel-boring machine and use it to build a building or some goddamn thing,” Brierley says. “It might be contaminated with oil, it could be contaminated with the conditioners they’re using in the machine, it could be contaminated with the steel parts that fall off the machine, it could be contaminated with acidic chemicals or the stuff that’s in the ground.” In sum: Brick-making is way harder than it looks. Game on, Elon.
4. Beat Traffic With Lots of Elevators
Musk insists the sheer number of tunnel entrances and exits will banish all whispers of traffic from his tunnel system. But that seems, well, unlikely. Won’t it take some time for the pod elevators to travel to and from the surface? There are 8 million vehicles registered in the wider Los Angeles region and 10 million people. Why wouldn’t traffic (and humans) cluster around the Loop’s choke points in the same way they do on highway on- and off-ramps?
“That’s the challenge: how to speed up the movement of people and the cars, up and down the tunnel,” says Gutierrez, the tunneling expert. “The system will only be as fast as Musk can move people in and out of the tunnels.” (He says high-speed elevators can help.)
5. Operate Public Transit Without Public Subsidy
The Boring Company wants to lower American tunneling prices, from between $600 million to $1 billion a mile to about $60 million.
To make money, though, you gotta raise money. Thus far, Boring does have some funds in the bank. In 2017, it raised $112.5 million from investors—nearly all of it from Elon himself. It has also sold 50,000 branded hats at $20 a pop, and 20,000 “flamethrowers,” white and black branded roof torchers, at $500 each. Musk also suggested selling life-size Temple of Horus Lego-like sets, composed of muck bricks. “The Boring Company is 100 percent privately financed and is not seeking public funding for any projects, including Los Angeles,” a Boring Company spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Musk & BoCo say a Loop ride will be but a dollar. That would be excellent for Angelenos, who currently pay $1.75 per Metro fare. But it gives the company little flexibility as it builds out its system. “Most private transportation businesses would deal with the problem of demand exceeding supply by charging a higher price, until supply increases and demand decreases, so that they are roughly equivalent,” says Juan Matute, who studies urban mobility as associate director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “But this would mean charging more than is currently projected when the system opens and for several years after.”
6. Torch the Red Tape
In late April, Boring Company scored a local government victory when an LA City Council committee approved its bid to construct its test tunnel without a complete environmental review. (The company would complete a review for the entire system, Musk said.) The full council will have to give the company its rubber stamp before it can begin tunneling, and the company says it has approximately 600 pages of permits to fill out in the meantime.
But BoCo’s approach to innovation just might be philosophically at odds with an environmental exemption. “I do get the sense that the Boring Company thinks that it can't possibly answer many of these forward-looking questions because they plan to learn by doing and will make changes as needed along the way,” Matute says. “That approach is fundamentally opposed to what local governments and public sector stakeholders have come to expect from 45-plus years of environmental review: that the public will know everything about the project and potential risks to the environment before public officials approve even a small phase of a project.”
Boring has struck something of a deal with LA’s Metro, which has oversight over all public transportation projects in the area. Shortly before last week’s meeting, the transit agency released a statement saying it would work as “partners” with the Musk venture, and would ensure that its tunneling effort doesn’t interfere with the agency’s own plans to build a subway in the Sepulveda area.
7. Pull Off a Politically Dicey Megaproject
That neighborhood coalition lawsuit? That’s just the entrance ramp to the blood-red 405. Anyone who has ever attended a local council meeting or zoning hearing or development pitch knows that residents hate, well, any sort of change. While the Boring Company's Sepulveda Pass test tunnel will not go under private property, the prospect of a boring a larger system underneath a city full of (exceedingly expensive) homes is bound to freak a lot of people out.1
Musk has proven himself fairly adept at navigating government, and pulling off tremendous feats of engineering and branding. To wit: his transformation of the rocket business with SpaceX and the continued existence of electric carmaker Tesla.
Does Musk have the political acumen to navigate the homeowners’ association? It’s one thing to perform a smashing show in front of fans who have already demonstrated their taste for the fanciful by reserving tickets online, as they had to do before last week's information session. But take the act to windowless and fluorescent-lit community meetings, and it might be less impressive. Locals already wonder whether the Boring Company will take input from all community members, including those who’d rather a transportation system that works well than something fun and new. That will be the review that really counts.
1Story updated at 21:15 ET on Wednesday, May 23 to clarify how questions were selected, and to clarify that the proposed test tunnel will be dug under public right of way.
Source : https://www.wired.com/story/engineers-dont-totally-dig-musk-tunneling/1720