Elon Musk is excited again, and this time it’s all about a new tech venture called “The Boring Company.” Yep, that’s a play on words, but it’s also a real business that wants to revolutionize the way that Americans travel — not up in powerful space rockets this time, but rather beneath our cities. Here’s everything you need to know about it!
What’s Elon Musk up to this time?
Musk and associates believe that “roads must go 3D,” to quote the Boring Company. In other words, they really, really hate traffic, and they believe that as cities get more congested we’ll need to find other traffic solutions beyond our boring old streets and railways. The “3D” solutions could be either flying cars or tunnels — and since flying cars aren’t really feasible right now, the Boring Company is focusing on tunnels. Specifically, a whole bunch of tunnels underneath cities for people to travel in.
Musk likes this tunnel idea because it’s long-term, won’t have much impact on current city structures, and (naturally) because it’s a little sci-fi. It also ties in well to Musk’s high-speed, long-distance transit passion (including dreams like the Hyperloop), with the possibility of connecting nearby cities to each other.
So, what is “The Boring Company” exactly?
You may be thinking, “Umm, Elon, we already have tunnels below cities. They’re called subways. You were about a century too late.” Well, Musk knows that, and that’s partly why the new venture is called the Boring Company. It’s not about seizing some newfound technology, but rather using old-fashioned underground digging more efficiently.
Specifically, the Boring Company wants to vastly increase the speed that city tunnels can be dug, and decrease the associated costs. Additionally, the BC wants to get involved in creating the tunnels themselves. That’s where the other meaning of “boring” comes in: The company will literally be boring holes underneath urban areas, using its own assets.
But what is the Boring Company actually doing differently?
The BC has several specific goals in tunneling, which include a lot of advanced technology that isn’t often seen in today’s tunnel-digging. That includes:
- New TBMs (tunnel boring machines): These are the giant machines that chew out tunnels. They are very slow: about 14x slower than a snail, according to the BC. The primary goal of the company is to replace these older machines with brand new versions that come with a lot of promises. They will be carried via electrical power instead of diesel; they will be automated for safety; and they will have triple the amount of power compared to their oldschool predecessors. Some of these goals are relatively easy, while some require a lot of new invention.
- New support strategies: Currently, TBMs tunnel a little, stop to build supports, tunnel a little, and so on. That’s one of the big reasons they are so slow. The BC also wants to find a better way, preferably a method that allows for continuous tunneling and reliable support-building.
- Smaller tunnels: Current tunnels are around 28 feet wide in the U.S. The BC wants to dig tunnels that are only 14 feet wide. That’s where most the speed and savings come from.
- R&D: To no surprise, the BC thinks that underground construction equipment is woefully out of date. Part of the organization’s purpose is to research new technology to update this industry.
Is the Boring Company a pipe dream, or is it really happening?
It’s really happening. Actually, it was really happening back in the summer of 2017, when Elon Musk rented a Canadian boring machine and secured permission to start digging test tunnels out at the SpaceX headquarters—quite literally what Musk had threatened to do in response to horrible LA traffic.
From there the project quickly expanded. Maryland gave the company permission to dig a 10-mile tunnel in part of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the company unveiled plans to start using a second, more advanced boring machine. The long-term, Musk-style goal is to build a tunnel between New York and D.C., which in theory could take only 30 minutes.
Of course, at the moment these are primarily prototype and testing projects as the company forms ways to save money and reinvent tunneling. But there’s definitely a lot of activity.
Are there any practical yet fundamentally important problems that the BC needs to address?
Glad you asked! There are a number of issues with digging new transportation tunnels, some that the Boring Company has addressed and some it has not. That includes:
- Earthquakes and vibrations: The BC assures people that, a) the tunnels are too deep for any meaningful vibrations to be felt, and b) tunnels don’t really get damaged in earthquakes, and certainly can’t cause them.
- Dirt: What happens to the dirt from all this excavation? Well, it’s usually shipped to landfills or other construction projects — and it looks like that will keep on happening. The BC mentions that it would like to turn the dirt into construction bricks for tunnel support, but no word on when or how this would happen.
- Emissions: The BC intends to use an electric skate method to transport gas-burning equipment (unfortunately, tunneling equipment needs a lot of power and cannot be fully electric yet). This helps cut down on at least some emissions involved in the process. Presumably, once tunnels are completed they will be equipped with electric cars and vehicles.
- Size: Are 14-foot tunnels large enough for subway cars and transportation equipment? We hope so! However, 14-foot tunnels have been used primarily for sewer and flood control in past projects: It’s not certain precisely what sort of vehicles would be used in these smaller tunnels, although we do have some interesting mock-ups from the BC. But would these new tunnels be required to use BC vehicles?
Additionally, if you live in NYC, D.C. or another city riddled with public transit, you have probably noticed (especially in recent years) that the big problem with subways and similar solutions is maintenance. Tunnels may reliably stay the same, but underground equipment wears out very fast and is very difficult to replace or keep running on a reliable schedule over time. In other words, you can have the best tunnels in the world, but unless the city devotes enough resources in maintenance and updates, they are going to run into a whole lot of problems.
This sounds fun and futuristic. Can I get involved?
The Boring Company is still a relatively small startup, but it’s looking for top-notch engineers and technicians if you are interested in applying. Currently, there’s no word on investment opportunities or funding rounds.
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