advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

My strange trip inside Elon Musk’s first underground highway

With a snail and flamethrowers, The Boring Company founder unveiled a prototype tunnel outside SpaceX’s California headquarters. “If you can dig it here, you can dig it anywhere.”

My strange trip inside Elon Musk’s first underground highway
A modified Tesla Model X drives into the tunnel entrance before an unveiling event for the Boring Company test tunnel in Hawthorne, California, on December 18, 2018. [Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]

It was probably the first construction project unveiling to sport a Monty Python-style watchtower with a knight hurling insults in a bad French accent, marshmallow roasting by flamethrower, and a live snail.

advertisement
advertisement

As hundreds of natty VIP guests and media packed onto a steep ramp and tunnel platform, a car heading toward them slowed to a stop, and a flannel-clad Elon Musk emerged to cheers and high-fives.

“Thank you for coming to this hole in the ground!” he shouted.

Elon Musk, cofounder and CEO of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Boring Company test tunnel in Hawthorne, California, on December 18, 2018. [Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]
Two years after founding his cutting-edge tunneling startup, The Boring Company, and months of fielding media requests, tweeting teases, and delaying a week, Elon Musk yesterday unveiled the test tunnel for his envisioned zero-emission, high-speed transit system—including a surface-to-tunnel car elevator and a Tesla modified to run along the tunnel track.

“I’ve lived in L.A. for 16 years and the traffic has varied between horrible and absolutely excruciating,” Musk told reporters earlier in the day after rides in the tunnel. “I don’t see anything on the horizon that solves it. This is one solution–not to the exclusion of other things—but it’s a path to finally alleviating traffic congestion in cities. This is an early station—a prototype. We’re still figuring things out. But I think it’s a solution that would actually work.”

The 1.14-mile illuminated test tunnel cost $10 million of the $40 million the privately funded company has spent thus far, with Musk contributing an undisclosed amount of his own money. It runs 40 feet beneath 120th Street in Hawthorne, next to Musk’s SpaceX headquarters. (“I wanted to be able to see it from my desk and know if we’re making progress,” he said.)

advertisement

Tesla cars, outfitted with extendable tracking wheels, enter and exit via a ramp or a car elevator. Once in the tunnel, the tracking wheels emerge from underneath the car and lock into a guideway that keeps the car wheels on cement platforms. The test tunnel can handle cars traveling up to an envisioned 150 miles per hour.

At the unveiling, guests took rides, occasionally bumpy ones, from the entrance to the end about a mile away—at a paltry 50 miles per hour. Musk assured a finished tunnel would be completely smooth—and offer Wi-Fi and cell-phone reception. “We just ran out of time” for the event, he said.

A modified Tesla Model X drives into the tunnel entrance before an unveiling event for the Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel. [Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]
“Deployable tracking wheels can guide the car quickly through a tunnel, even if autopilot fails or the driver passes out or goes crazy. The tracking wheels will ensure the car stays on track,” said Musk.

“Converting the car into a train with tracking wheels was a profound breakthrough,” he added. “This way, you can drive on the road, and when it gets in the tunnel, the wheels deploy. Previously, electric skates would carry the car, which was much more complex. Deployable wheels would add $200 or $300 to the average car. It doesn’t have to be a Tesla. It can be any car. But it would need to be autonomous, so it could accelerate and break fast.

[Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]
“Some vehicles would continuously circulate in the loop, transporting cyclists and pedestrians,” he added. “You don’t have to own a car to use the system.”

Once operational, loop tunnels would be compatible with and pave the way for an eventual hyperloop network—an ultra-high-speed system that transports passengers longer distances at 600-plus mph via autonomous electric pods or cars in a vacuum shell.

advertisement

With entrance and exit station lifts as small as two parking spots, the system accommodates more stations than a subway, getting passengers closer to ultimate destinations.

“It’s more like an underground highway,” Musk added. “It’s only when you want to get off the loop system that you slow down.”

Overview of the test tunnel site and unveiling party. [Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]

Reimagining tunnel digging

Musk opted for a tunneling solution to traffic mitigation, because of the infinite amount of underground real estate, and the lack of surface noise or disruption. The challenge was finding a way around the slow speed and cost of conventional drilling, which Musk estimates at $1 billion a mile. So he set about redesigning the process.

The company was able to cut tunneling costs by reducing the tunnel diameter from the single-lane standard of 28 feet to 14, switching from diesel to electricity, and increasing the tunnel boring speed through more power, continuous drilling, and automation.

The “linestorm” second-generation tunnel-boring equipment. [Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]
Musk and his team streamlined the production line by automating the placement of the ringed structural sections and accompanying logistics, like plumbing and power lines; concurrently drilling and reinforcing the structure; tripling the drill power and durability; and redesigning the machinery to process more dirt. That combination increased the drilling speed 15 times faster than the next best machinery. “If it’s 15 times faster, then it cuts cut labor costs by 15,” he said.

[Photo: Robyn Beck/Pool]
The company cuts down on transportation time and costs by manufacturing the ringed reinforcement segments onsite and turning the discarded dirt—normally carted away at 15% of tunneling costs—into bricks that it sells onsite at a fraction of what building stores charge. It also gives them away to organizations that build affordable housing.

advertisement

The company mascot—Gary the Snail, named after the Sponge Bob Square Pants character—is a cheeky nod to the slowness of conventional tunnel drilling, which Musk says moves 14 times slower than the speed of a snail.

Musk, unfortunately, is less adept at snail sitting than drilling. “This is Gary No. 6,” he said, pointing to a pineapple-shaped terrarium containing a garden snail. “Apparently snails don’t live that long.”

Proposed projects

Although Musk cites five to 20 inquiries a week from cities, there are a few frontrunners. Chicago has enlisted The Boring Company to build the Chicago Express Loop that will run travelers from downtown’s Block 37 to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 12 minutes, compared to the Blue Line’s 45-minute journey. Other proposals in various stages include a 35-mile Washington, D.C., to Baltimore hyperloop, Las Vegas loop, and citywide Los Angeles loop network, including an operational proof of concept Dugout Loop connecting Red Line Metro station neighborhoods to Dodger Stadium.

Early concept design for th Chicago Express Loop. [Image: The Boring Company]
Most of these efforts have already courted controversy. Hawthorne residents accused the company of not notifying them before digging and the city of fast-tracking permits and waiving environmental reviews. Earlier this year, Musk dropped plans for a Westside Los Angeles loop after community activists sued the city for trying to circumvent an environmental review. And the Chicago Express garnered considerable criticism for not realistically addressing the city’s transportation needs. (Not to mention, initial legislative concern over the legality of the Boring Company (Not A) Flamethrower fundraiser.)

“Chicago will probably be out first, depending on regulatory approvals, which are outside of our control,” said Musk. “The D.C.-to-Baltimore hyperloop is in the early stages of building. We’ve had interest from cities around the world. Either we’re building to operate it, which is what Chicago is asking us to do, or we’re happy to build one and hand it over to the city or state. We’re being selective about what tunnels to do next. We’re looking at the highest value in the least amount of time.”

By the time Los Angeles hosts the Olympics in 2028, he said, “Hopefully the whole network [here] will be running. The regulations are extreme and the paperwork is enormous. You have to address oil, gas, methane, zone, earthquakes. It’s the tunnel equivalent of Broadway—if you can dig it here, you can dig it anywhere.”

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

More