Elon Musk is more than a bit busy building Model 3s, launching rockets, and saving the world from the AI apocalypse, but that isn’t keeping him from digging in to his holy mole-iest venture yet: a mildly mystifying scheme to find a faster, cheaper way of boring tunnels, and using it to destroy traffic.
As cool as that sounds, Silicon Valley’s version of Tony Stark hasn’t said much about his mysterious Boring Company, which now employs six people and shares office space with SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. Just what are its goals? How does he expect to disrupt tunneling? And when will LA traffic ever improve? Musk still isn’t talking, but documents the Boring Company provided to the city of Hawthorne, and comments employees made to the city council, provide a few tidbits.
Those clues provide a clearer picture of what Musk is up to. Good thing, too, because the Hawthorne city council just gave the Boring Company permission to begin digging a 1.6-mile tunnel so it can test its technology. Which, by the way, doesn’t seem terribly innovative so far.
The Boring Company
For those who’ve been too busy ordering a Tesla Model 3 or watching SpaceX launches to keep up with Musk’s latest Big Idea: The Boring Company launched in January, less than a month after Musk tweeted a complain about Los Angeles traffic and pledged to “build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” He envisions a transportation Upside Down that duplicates LA’s maze of highways underground. But wait. It gets weirder. A series of tunnels—30 or even 40 levels of them—could shuttle individual cars on electric skates at more than 120 mph. Need to travel beyond the city? No problem. Elon’s got a plan for that too. He’s proposed a 200-mile tunnel connecting New York and Washington, DC, via hyperloop. (You remember hyperloop, yeah? That’s Musk’s plan to whisk people hither and yon in tubes at something like the speed of sound.)
To make this happen at cost and speed commensurate with his taste for disruption, Musk must first conquer tunneling. Like the stodgy space and auto industries, boring seems ripe for revolution. Digging any tunnel of consequence takes years, costs millions, and requires navigating labyrinthine bureaucracies. Seemingly minor problems can prove debilitating: When Seattle’s boring machine, Big Bertha, unexpectedly hit a lead pipe and damaged its cutting blades, it spent two years stranded underground.
Musk thinks he can do it faster and cheaper than anyone else—including, presumably, this guy—by tweaking the tools and engineering. So he bought a used boring machine, named it Godot (the man sure does hate waiting), and dug a test trench 160 feet long and 16 feet deep in the SpaceX parking garage. Pleased by those results and eager to hone his skills, Musk wants to keep going beyond SpaceX property and into, or rather under, the city of Hawthorne. Now the city council has given it the go-ahead, after a vote of four to one. (There are still more a few more papers to sign before work on the tunnel can begin, including permits from state departments of transportation and labor.)
The Test Tunnel
The Boring Company’s plan calls for extending that tunnel 1.6 miles to a point somewhere beneath 120th Street. The company insists the five-month construction process won’t interrupt traffic, and says locals won’t even know there’s work going on because the tunnel will be 22 to 44 feet beneath the surface of the road.
“We won’t have construction crews walking down the street, we won’t have any trucks or excavators working in those areas,” says Brett Horton, SpaceX’s head of construction. “Everything that we’re doing is underground.” (He said a number of SpaceX employees work for the Boring Company part-time.)
The tunnel will be a relatively trim 13.5 feet in diameter, just wide enough to test the electric skate—which appears to be the main point of digging this hole to begin with. “The test tunnel project would involve SpaceX engineers repeatedly testing personal vehicle types suitable for placement on the skates; refinement of the design and technology; and general data collection on performance, durability, and application,” the Boring Company wrote in documents submitted to the city council.
The company assured city leaders that no humans will travel through this tunnel or ride on the electric skates that will zip through it (though that sounds like a blast). It didn’t explain why that testing must happen underground, and company officials declined to comment for this article.
Even less clear is what this tunnel has to do with Musk’s plan to ratchet up boring speeds. “We haven’t reinvented tunneling,” Horton told the council members. “We’re using a proven machine that was used in the Bay Area for a sewer project. We’re using proven technology and proven means and methods in terms of construction. Everything we’re doing has been done before.” Documents submitted to the council suggest Godot will bore 3 inches per minute, or 60 feet per day—no faster than the industry standard.
Instead, the company seems to consider this a big experiment, an opportunity to learn the tunnel boring biz, test a few hypotheses, and explore how it might make good on Musk’s pledge to increase tunneling speeds by a factor of 14.
Folks who already understand how tunneling works express skepticism. “What does Musk think, we’re all idiots?” says Gary Brierley, who has been designing and managing the construction of tunnels and other projects in the LA area for 50 years. “He thinks people who have been doing this all their lives wouldn’t improve this if they could?” Brierley says running the actual machine is only one part of a huge process that simply takes time: constructing tunnel support walls behind the machine’s cuts, hauling soil to the surface, monitoring deformation or damage as construction moves along. And that all comes after filing reports, obtaining permits, hiring contractors, and tending to the myriad other bureaucratic hassles that so rarely yield to promises of innovation and disruption.
“It’s all interesting what he’s doing,” Brierley says. “It’s not a bad thing that people are talking about tunnels.” And, to be fair to Musk, he has hushed critics who said he couldn’t launch his own rockets or build a successful startup automaker.