First step in Musk's vision of tunnel travel

VIDEO: REUTERS
Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk (above) unveiling the first completed tunnel by his company Boring Company in Hawthorne, California, on Tuesday, with a modified Tesla Model X driving into the tunnel at the event (left).
Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk unveiling the first completed tunnel by his company Boring Company in Hawthorne, California, on Tuesday, with a modified Tesla Model X driving into the tunnel at the event (above).PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk (above) unveiling the first completed tunnel by his company Boring Company in Hawthorne, California, on Tuesday, with a modified Tesla Model X driving into the tunnel at the event (left).
Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk (above) unveiling the first completed tunnel by his company Boring Company in Hawthorne, California, on Tuesday, with a modified Tesla Model X driving into the tunnel at the event.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tycoon unveils segment built using low-cost, fast-digging tech

LOS ANGELES • Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk made a brief appearance on Tuesday to unveil the first tunnel completed by the underground transit venture he launched two years ago as an ambitious remedy to Los Angeles' infamously heavy traffic.

In a 30-minute presentation carried by live webcast, he touted the 1.83km tunnel segment as a breakthrough in low-cost, fast-digging technology being pioneered by his nascent tunnelling firm, the Boring Company.

He has advertised the proof-of-concept tunnel as a first step towards developing a high-speed subterranean network capable of whisking vehicles and pedestrians below the "soul-destroying" street traffic of America's second-largest city at up to 241kmh. But such a system has a long way to go.

The new tunnel was excavated along a path that runs not through Los Angeles but beneath the tiny adjacent municipality of Hawthorne, where the Boring Company and Mr Musk's SpaceX rocket firm are both headquartered.

Mr Musk, best known as head of the Tesla electric car manufacturer and energy company, launched his foray into public transit after complaining on Twitter in December 2016 that LA's traffic was "driving me nuts", promising then to "build a boring machine and just start digging".

Mr Musk, best known as head of the Tesla electric car manufacturer and energy company, launched his foray into public transit after complaining on Twitter in December 2016 that LA's traffic was "driving me nuts", promising then to "build a boring machine and just start digging".

In May, the company gave the world a preview of the Hawthorne tunnel, posting a fast-forward video of its interior shot by a camera travelling the length of the cylindrical passageway, which measures about 3.7m in diameter.

On Tuesday, Mr Musk put the total price tag for the finished segment at about US$10 million (S$13.7 million), including the cost of excavation, internal infrastructure, lighting, ventilation, safety systems, communications and a track. By comparison, he said, digging a mile (1.6km) of tunnel by "traditional" engineering methods costs up to US$1 billion and takes three to six months to complete.

He boasted of several cost-cutting innovations, including higher-power boring machines, digging narrower tunnels, speeding up dirt removal and simultaneous excavation and reinforcement.

He also invoked his favourite comparison with a snail, a creature he said moves 14 times faster than the speed of a typical tunnelling machine. "Aspirationally, we should be slightly faster than a snail," he said.

He did not say how long it took to burrow his new tunnel, which ended up running short of the 3km easement his company originally requested for the project.

But he showed pre-recorded video footage of a newly built elevator station designed to carry passengers from street level to the tunnel's subterranean entryway. The video featured a modified Tesla Model X luxury car on the elevator.

The sample tunnel is part of Mr Musk's vision to have an underground network that cars, preferably Teslas, can be lowered to by lifts, then slotted into tracks and propelled along at speeds up to 241kmh. The network envisioned is an expandable mesh of tunnels and elevators capable of having more than 4,000 cars pass through per hour.

In June, Boring was selected by Chicago to build a 27km underground transit system linking the city's downtown to its main airport. The company has also proposed an East Coast Loop that would run from Washington to the Maryland suburbs.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'First step in Musk's vision of tunnel travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe