We got our first look at Elon Musk's underground tunnel. Here's what it's like
HAWTHORNE, Calif. — A white Tesla SUV lowers about 30 feet on an elevator, a pair of side wheels emerge from underneath the nose and with the Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine" cranked up on the stereo, the driver guides it into a mile-long tunnel.
Billionaire Elon Musk hopes the underground portal will be the future of urban transportation.
For the first time, Musk's Boring Co. offered rides in the 1.14-mile-long tunnel it has dug next to the Los Angeles suburban headquarters of rocket maker SpaceX, where Musk is CEO. In introducing the underground passage to media and invited guests, Musk said he sees tunnel networks as a solution to urban traffic congestion.
"There is a path to alleviate traffic congestion in cities," Musk explained in meeting with reporters. "We’re not saying stop all other solutions. We’re saying this is a solution that will actually work."
Musk envisions cities building networks of tunnels that will allow motorists to zip point-to-point virtually unimpeded with little time spent on streets. Costs could be as little as $1 per passenger, he said. The system would be made affordable based on a breakthrough in drilling technology that the Boring Co. is working to perfect, leading to a five-fold increase in the speed of tunneling for starters and perhaps more in the future.
But the strategy outlined with Musk and Boring Co. leader Steve Davis leaves plenty of room for skepticism. Tunneling is complicated. It can bog down amid concerns over oil or natural gas pockets and changing geology. Except for its 6,000-foot tunnel, the Boring Co. has no track record and is yet to employ the technologies that it hopes will cut the costs of cutting through the earth.
Financing details of an actual urban tunnel network that would run into the billions are sketchy at best. Financing, at the moment, Musk said, is not an issue with investors lining up and cities showing huge interest. Musk, also CEO of Tesla, said the Boring Co. has spent "$40 million-ish" so far.
In addition to Los Angeles, where the Boring Co. has talked about building a tunnel to Dodger Stadium, Musk said Chicago is a likely candidate for a tunnel network. Las Vegas could be another candidate.
Underscoring its evolving nature, Musk unveiled some major changes from what was previously known about the $10-million project in Hawthorne. For instance, in the past, the company talked about cars traveling on metal sleds. Under the current plan, they would travel on their own power using the guide wheels, which he says could be added for about $200 to $300 per vehicle.
The cars would be electric and autonomous, eliminating issues of exhaust fumes and minimizing the chance they could crash into each other, he said. They would be lowered into the tunnels on metal platforms like those in some parking garages, which require no more than two parking spaces on the surface. But because the cost of building tunnels can be cut dramatically, Musk said there's no limit how many can be built in order to add capacity — unlike restricted highway space on the surface.
"Everyone wants to go on the road structure at the same time," he said. "The only way to solve this is to go 3D. You can go deeper underground. ... You can have many layers of tunnels."
The key to success is a new breed of tunneling machines and methods to cut drilling times, which can take as long as a year to go a single mile. He wants to make it a mile a week.
"This is our goal: We must be fast as a snail," he told the crowd at a party to celebrate the tunnel.
Current tunnel machines only cut through the earth for 10 minutes out of every hour, he said. The rest of the time is spent adding concrete panels that form a shell around the passage, moving out dirt and adding conduit for air or power.
Musk said the Boring Co.'s breakthroughs could allow it to drill continuously, with shoring panels fed into place robotically and dirt brought out automatically. The shoring sections could be created on-site partly from dirt brought out of the hole, not brought to the site by truck. Dirt brought out of the tunnel can also be turned into bricks.
To underscore the point in cheeky fashion, the Boring Co. constructed an approximately 40-foot medieval brick watchtower next to the entrance, complete with crossed axes at the entrance and a knight to guard it.
Musk said the bricks cost 10 cents to make and would be sold or, in the case of low-income housing, given away. He hopes to sell enough of them to pay for the cost of dirt removal.
As for the tunnel itself, the test version means passengers are in for a bit of a rough ride. The SUV gained speed, each wheel running on concrete ledges that appeared to be crudely poured, resulting in bumpiness. Musk acknowledged the issue, but said it is easily solved.
The tunnel is lit by what appeared to be a single neon tube running overhead, giving off an icy blue hue. At the end, the vehicle emerged into the sunlight and rose up another elevator amid corrugated metal channels on either side. It came up in what appeared to be the backyard of an apartment building, next to a wheel shop.
When Boring Co. builds for public use, "it's much more like an underground highway. It’s only when you want to get off the loop system that you slow down," Musk said.