Is Elon Musk’s Future of Tunneling A Good Idea?

Richard Fang

Let’s explore the positives and concerns of The Boring Company

The Boring Company is an infrastructure and tunnel construction services company founded by Elon Musk in 2016. Initially formed as part of a subsidiary under SpaceX, it has since become independent in 2018.

One of the key inspirations for Musk to launch his company was congestion with Los Angeles traffic (To be fair LA traffic is insane) as well as limitations of two-dimensional transport networks.

Since then, The Boring Company is looking to build tunnels in Chicago as well as hyperloop between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC. Most of these projects are currently being reviewed and waiting to be approved, but progress is steadily being made.

Let's take a look at its history including its first project.

The Boring Company’s First Project

In March 2019, The Boring Company won a contract with the LVCC (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) to build an underground transportation system containing two tunnels called the “Convention Center Loop”.

Drilling for the first tunnel was completed in February 2020, while the recent one was completed recently in May a few days ago. Once the transportation is looped, people will be able to travel across the convention center in less than two minutes in electric Tesla vehicles.

“This milestone not only helps usher in the future of transportation in Las Vegas, but it signals the destination’s ability to push through during trying times and continue to meet the evolving needs of our visitors,” Steve Hill, LVCVA’s CEO and president, said in a statement.

Although it may not be an extensive tunnel system, this marks the first commercial project for The Boring Company, which had a total cost of around $52.5 million.

So is tunneling a good idea? by Daniel Jerez on Unsplash

The reasoning why Musk wanted to create tunnels makes sense on the surface (pun intended). With so much traffic and congestion, why not use what we can’t see?

There is, of course, two sides to the argument here, so let’s explore some points on this.

There are high costs involved with tunneling

One of the biggest reasons why tunneling is not a popular option in the first place is the costs involved. The machinery involvement, as well as technology currently in the market, could mean that some projects could cost over 1 billion dollars a mile to tunnel out.

According to The Boring Company, for tunneling to be viable, a factor of 10 must be reduced. Currently, the TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine) is admittingly slow and inefficient.

Musk, however, is looking to address this issue by:

  • Increasing TBM Power by increasing output while maintaining upgrades to the cooling system to counteract the rise of heat
  • By going electric and replacing diesel-powered vehicles
  • Automate the TBM for more efficiency
  • Continuously tunnel to reduce inefficiencies of drilling and maintain tunneling activity

Currently, a standard tunnel is 28 feet in diameter, while Musk wants to reduce this to less than 14 feet. This might mean overtime, the inefficiencies of tunneling could be addressed with Musk’s focus in R&D as well as lowering the tunneling diameters to reduce tunneling time.

Safety Issues by Ümit Yıldırım on Unsplash

This is a significant issue that stands out to most people.

One of the biggest problems faced is around the tunnel diameter that The Boring Company plans to do its drilling to. Regulations currently indicate that tunnels must be at least 21.5 feet in diameter (3 meters) to allow people to escape the vehicle in case of an emergency. In The Boring Company’s case, their tunnels will be reduced to 14 feet for efficiencies.

On their website, there is some information however, on evacuation procedures. This includes having emergency exits along with the loop system and citing better safety overall using the tunneling system and vehicle.

This still raises concern as there still needs to be proper emergency procedures implemented, especially in longer tunnels within the hyperloop systems (where vehicles can travel up to 600+ miles per hour).

Overall Community Perception by Perry Grone on Unsplash

One of the critical questions that remain unanswered revolves around the idea of tunneling revolves around the communities impacted by it.

Do they actually want these tunnels?

With many congested areas, people prefer living in cities where services are available by foot or bike. This is especially the case in cities like New York, so do we need long tunnels that go from the city to city?

The question is still mainly unanswered, but in Musk’s eyes, this is needed to build an urban city 2.0 for the future. Perhaps more rigorous user-centric studies are required, but as long as cities are asking for the infrastructure, this might be enough of a reason for The Boring Company to start tunneling under cities.

So what benefits do these tunnels provide?

We’ve taken a look at some of the concerns these tunnels have raised, so what about the positives instead?

Apart from the obvious points around reducing congestion and potentially making transport a bit easier to go between certain main cities, there are surprisingly other benefits for having an underground transport system.

This includes:

  • No surface noise and vibration. Tunnel construction and operation will be silent, invisible, and subtle at the surface. The primary point made is against ‘flying cars’ which are disruptive, noisy, and potentially cause anxiety for people below.
  • Weatherproof. With ‘flying cars’, the weather could potentially be an issue. Operating the tunnel means you’re unaffected by weather, especially by potential hail or rain above ground.
  • Comfortable and convenient for passengers. Higher speeds and straighter alignments are possible due to fewer subsurface right-of-way constraints.
  • Easier to create more tunnels: With tunnels, there is an ability to build more layers in case there is a need to redirect more traffic.

In my opinion, there are definitely some positives of creating these loops, especially with the congestion that currently exists above ground.

Final Thoughts

The Boring Company has the potential to revolutionize traffic flow and direction but also innovation around how tunnels are built, especially the technology behind it.

The major problems that it needs to overcome revolve around safety issues and community involvement. This involves having a thought-out plan to manage the potential problems around emergency procedures. Having a smaller diameter may also not be viable in all situations, and this needs to be monitored and innovated to make sure other issues could be addressed if raised.

The last concern that The Boring Company needs to address is involving residents in the development of ideas, especially around urban development and communities. There is increasing recognition that smart city planning should always be people first from the beginning, and Musk might face backlash if he doesn’t abide by this.

The main goal, in the end, should always be benefiting the people in the cities he plans to build tunnels for.

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Editor at CornerTech and Marketing @richardfliu on Twitter


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