Is Elon Musk's Plan for a Road Network Beneath LA More than a Pipe Dream?


Publication:
Date: 
September 4, 2017
Cities attract wild ideas, from Qinhuangdao’s straddling bus to London’s bike lanes in the sky. As Musk’s Boring Company starts tunnelling, could his plans for underground roads and Hyperloop trains prove the doubters wrong?

In early August, the city council of Hawthorne, California, held a special meeting. It had set aside this time to discuss a major construction project proposed by a high profile company based there in the sprawling Los Angeles basin.

The company was Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, the rocket-building offshoot of the electric car company Tesla, run by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX had recently spun off another entity, this one aimed at disrupting the tunnel boring business, cheekily named the Boring Company – and it needed the City of Hawthorne’s cooperation.

“We want to prove our technology,” Brett Horton, senior director of facilities and construction at SpaceX, told the city council. The company had recently purchased a used tunnel boring machine from another California city and had begun testing its capabilities below its parking lot. But SpaceX wants to go further, tunnelling a roughly two-mile path beyond its property line and under the streets of Hawthorne. It’s a fairly quotidian infrastructural endeavour, but one tied to a grand vision.

Musk wants to build a vast network of tunnels below cities like Los Angeles in which cars and people will be whisked across town on electrically driven platforms at speeds of 125mph. Like the swooping and merging lanes of an interstate highway, the tunnels would criss-cross the metropolis, far below ground level. Elevators would bring cars, cargo and other vehicles down into tunnels and into the system of tubes on what the Boring Company calls an “electric skate”, then back up another elevator at the desired destination – apparently bypassing all traffic above ground.

“Traffic is driving me nuts,” Musk tweeted in December. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging …”

The digging has begun. The company has bored about 160 feet under its own property, with no reported complications. The proposed two-mile extension is being presented as a laboratory for increasing the speed and reducing the cost of tunnelling. It’s a new frontier for a parent organisation that has already developed transformative automobile and rocket technologies. ...