Ambitious and occasionally controversial serial entrepreneur Elon Musk—the man behind Tesla, Hyperloop, SpaceX, PayPal, and other projects—really hates L.A. traffic. So much so that last December he launched The Boring Company to create a new network of underground traffic tunnels. And lest you think ten months is nothing on the timeline of a massive infrastructure project, Elon Musk has taken to Instagram to show you he is already making considerable progress.
Right now, you probably have been a lot of questions about how Musk and his Boring Company, like, get to do this. Why does building a single Metro station seem to take years, but this tunnel can just appear after a couple of months? Also, who gave Elon Musk permission to start digging under our feet in the first place? Is Elon Musk a mad scientist super-villan, because this all totally sounds like a plot from a James Bond movie? Here are the things we do know.
Where Will The Boring Company’s Tunnel Go?
The tunnel is currently just 500 feet, but now that construction is actively underway, it may be two miles long within just a couple of months and run the length of the 405 from LAX to the 101 by a year from now, if you believe what Musk posted on Twitter (and there is evidence to do so, given that he’s made good on his Twitter word so far). Eventually, the underground route is planned to connect LAX to the tech-industry hubs of Culver City and Santa Monica and even to Westwood (apparently other parts of L.A. aren’t Boring enough).
What Exactly Is This Thing?
To avoid the tunnel becoming just as prone to traffic jams as the surface-level streets, vehicles enter the tunnel via elevators that are built into curbside parking spots on surface streets. Once the platform you’ve parked on drops down to tunnel level, it gets picked up by a track, becoming a high-speed “skate” that moves at up to 150 miles per hour. The elevators would, in the grand plan, be located every mile or so along the route, allowing drivers to choose to enter or exit at their desired spot.
The Boring Tunnel borrows certain technology concepts from Hyperloop, even allowing for the possibility of skates being outfitted with vacuum shell enclosures for pedestrians to walk into, creating a sort of hybrid of a traditional subway car and what Boring Company calls a “Hyperloop Pod.” Boring Company is, in a sense, a warm-up for Hyperloop construction, as Musk plans to work out the kinks of his fast, intense tunnel-construction tech on Boring Tunnels, and then apply those learnings to Hyperloop routes.
What About Earthquakes?
Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but if an earthquake hits, you might be safer if you’re in the tunnel than just about anywhere else. Modern tunnels built with seismic safety in mind are actually considered to be among the best places to be during an earthquake event. The Washington State Department of Transportation uses this analogy: “Imagine a plate of fruit-filled gelatin dessert. Tunnels are like the pieces of fruit at the base of the gelatin, while above-ground structures are like the fruit toward the top. If you shake the plate, the movement becomes more exaggerated as it flows up from the base of the gelatin. In an earthquake, this translates to tunnel movement measured in inches, while the movement above ground might be measured in feet.”
Seriously, Though, How Can He Do This?
There are two types of answers to the “how” question: technical and regulatory. Let’s address the technical questions first. Boring Company is able to construct tunnels faster, cheaper, and, according to the company, better, than anybody before them. Conventional tunnel projects right now can cost up to $1 billion per mile, and they decided that, for this project to be feasible, they needed to find a way to cap costs at a mere $100 million per mile. To do that, they started by building a better tunnel-building machine. The Tunnel Boring Machine (naming things is not the company’s top priority) will be used for these tunnels and the long-discussed Hyperloops, so engineers and designers have been hard at work on the concept for some time. Innovations in the TBM technology include electric engines rather than conventional diesel and that the machines can be automated and work at boring away constantly, without human operation.
The other way The Boring Company cuts costs is by building the tunnels far smaller than has conventionally been done. A one-lane tunnel from Boring can be under 14 feet wide—half the width of a normal one-lane traffic tunnel—thanks to the skates, which eliminate the extra buffer space that has to be built in to accomodate human drivers taking wide turns or wobbling out of lanes. That single innovation in itself cuts the costs by three or four times in itself, according to company materials.
And, since this project has essentially been paid for out of Musk’s rather deep pockets, not relying on any kind of public funding (so far), that helps speed things along, too. If his previous enterprises are a guide, Musk may eventually seek public money to invest in the project as it expands.
But What About the Permits?
That tunnel you see in Musk’s Instagram is located in the City of Hawthorne, the same independent city within L.A. County where SpaceX and Tesla Motors already happen to have their offices. In a meeting of the Hawthorne City Council in August, The Boring Company was granted an easement for a tunnel project stretching under 120th Street, ultimately running from Crenshaw Boulevard to Hawthorne Boulevard. The specific price and terms of that easement were negotiated in a closed session, but we do know from the public records of the meeting that Hawthorne’s City Environmental Consultant signed off on a special “Class 32” designation, exempting the project from additional environmental impact assessments. That designation is for projects that are not expected to create any significant pollution, noise, or other disturbances. And since the TBM was lowered to the ground using an elevator on the SpaceX property and otherwise operates entirely underground, there’s no need to apply for permits for street closures or surface construction.
So that’s how they get the proof-of-concept tunnel built. But what about once they’re ready to push past that test stage, something which, at the current rate of construction might be just a few months down the line?
In January, a representative for the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering told the Los Angeles Times that, “We are not aware of any permit applications for a tunnel beneath the Public Right of Way. Any such permit application for a tunnel beneath the Public Right of Way would require City Council approval.” As soon as that application is made, we are likely to learn a lot more about next steps for The Boring Company.
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