June 21, 2018
Tech

Elon Musk talks proof-of-concept tunnel parallel to the 405 in Los Angeles

Enlarge / Elon Musk speaking to a crowd in Los Angeles

On Thursday evening in Los Angeles, Tesla, SpaceX, and Boring Company CEO Elon Musk laid out plans for The Boring Company to start building longer tunnels under the city. The first step? A 2.7 mile north-south test tunnel parallel to one of the city's most congested freeways, the 405. This test tunnel won't carry the general public, but The Boring Company does intend to do test rides to get user feedback eventually.

The company has buy-in from LA Metro, the city's public transportation provider. In a short, tweeted statement Thursday evening, LA Metro announced: "Metro leadership and CEO Phil Washington had a great meeting today with the talented staff of the @boring_company. They will coordinate with us as they move ahead with their proof of concept tunnel under Sepulveda Boulevard to ensure it doesn't interfere with our Sepulveda Transit Corridor rail project. We'll be partners moving forward."

(The Sepulveda Transit Corridor is in preliminary stages, and could be a public transportation route linking the San Fernando Valley and LAX).

In an email Thursday night, a Boring Company spokesperson said that the partnership between LA Metro and the company merely entails "close coordination to make sure our system complements and increases public accessibility to Metro."

The plans

Infrastructure projects are notoriously difficult for many reasons, not least of which is permitting. Musk hinted that the new test tunnel is not fully permitted yet, saying that there are still "600 pages" of permit applications to complete. However, the state of California seems to have conditionally approved of an exemption for The Boring Company from the requirement to obtain a permit under CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act. The Los Angeles City Council would still need to approve the exemption.

Musk stressed that if a larger project is feasible after this test tunnel, then The Boring Company would complete the full CEQA permit. But the decision to seek an exemption at this stage was due to the fact that CEQA permitting "can take a year, sometime two years," Musk said.

No mention was made of when work on this project is projected to start, and when it is targeted for completion.

The Boring Company has made small advances in a number of metropolitan areas since Musk first established the company two years ago. Late last week, Musk shared a video of the company's existing pilot tunnel, which has been dug under the SpaceX campus in Hawthorne.

During the short informational session tonight, Musk said that he hoped a wider tunnel system would complement the existing LA Metro subway system. Still, there might be some element of competition. The CEO said The Boring Company aims to offer rides for $1 a trip, cheaper than standard bus fare.

The company has ambitiously projected that using its tunnel solution, a person could get from LAX to Dodger Stadium in 10 minutes, or the Getty Center to Union Station in 12 minutes. (This author was born and raised in LA and is extremely skeptical of these numbers, but would love to be proven wrong.)

Musk seemed to show unusual deference at this event, saying that tunnels are merely the best way he can think to solve traffic issues. "Were not suggesting this to the exclusion of other approaches, but it's the one that we think would work."

The CEO rejected the idea that induced demand would keep tunnels congested. (Induced demand suggests that traffic creates latent demand for road use, and new roads bring that suppressed demand out, creating endlessly increasing traffic.) Instead, the fact that you can build tunnels underneath other tunnels for hundreds of miles would prevent gridlock in an underground labyrinth, he said.

For now, though, the test tunnel will involve a "single tunnel shaft of private property" which will be shielded from view with a privacy screen. The whole tunnel will be privately funded and will not be used for public transportation, the company said. Eventually, The Boring Company would offer rides in this tunnel for feedback, "like a weird little Disney ride in LA," Musk said.

The CEO stressed that impact to the community would be minimal and care would be taken to make sure no construction would adversely affect the nearby community. A slide during the presentation noted that no streets would be closed, no homes or businesses would be tunneled under, and no tunneling noise or vibration would be felt. Muck haul trucks would be required, but the trucks would not be able to haul between 6pm and 8am and would be severely limited from trips during rush hour traffic.

The machines

Musk spoke for a bit about the boring machines that are doing the work on these prototype tunnels. "We have to figure out how to tunnel fast, safely, and at a cost thats not crazy," he said.

The Boring Company's angle has always been to make tunnel digging more efficient, and Musk has purchased a second-hand machine for his company to study, which has been christened "Godot." The boring machine has been said to be 10 times slower than a snail, but Musk believes clever engineering can improve the speed of the machine significantly. Still "its not like this thing is going to be ripping through neighborhoods," Musk said. "We do want to be faster than a snail… which is way harder than it sounds." But even at the machine's optimum theoretical speed, "you could crawl away from it with one arm," Musk joked.

To improve the speed of the drill, the company has been working on continuous mining, where the drill is able to work continuously while removing muck and inserting reinforcing segments in the tunnel as it's being built.

Another factor that adds cost and time to conventional boring operations is the fact that as a tunnel gets longer, power lines have to be added to run the machine. "The boring machines themselves are all electrically powered," Musk said. "We want to make this more like a cordless drill, using Tesla battery packs."

Muck Lego bricks?

Musk also said tonight that The Boring Company has had success creating bricks from the muck that's been extracted during tunneling. The bricks are formed "by compressing the dirt at extremely high pressures and adding a little bit of concrete," Musk said, adding that the bricks are "rated for California seismic loads."

"we could actually sell the bricks for like 10 cents a brick…you could like build houses with them," Musk said to laughter.

But Musk moved on, saying that the company could also use the bricks to create life-size lego kits. "We could do some fun things like make life-size lego kits where you could build, like, I think, the Pantheon," the CEO said. "If you want you could sort of order the kit and kind of build this in your backyard and it seems like a fun thing you could do with an afternoon."

Original Article

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