How Elon Musk Wants to Dig Tunnels on the Cheap Under Los Angeles

Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

Elon Musk is the man with a plan. His new venture, the Boring Company, promises to reduce the costs associated with tunnel digging. This, he hopes, will enable cities to build intricate tunnel networks and solve congestion issues. On Wednesday, the tunneling company announced how his company will reduce these costs.

The company was first announced late last year through Musk’s Twitter feed. The Tesla CEO was aggravated by the slow traffic in Los Angeles, and decided to start a tunnel-digging company. Musk envisions a future of cities with 30 tunnels stacked under the ground, serving road, metro rail, and even hyperloop.

Last week, he shared the first images of the company’s initial project: a tunnel that will run from Los Angeles International Airport to Culver City, Santa Monica, Westwood, and Sherman Oaks. The first machine is called “Godot,” and future machine names will follow a theme of plays and poems.

The company has posted a series of frequently asked questions that outline a seven-step plan to revolutionize tunnel digging. During an interview on April 28 at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Musk did some rough math on making boring cheaper by a factor of 10 and has followed that up with a seven-step plan on the company’s website.

Here’s how Musk wants to reduce the cost of tunnel digging. 

Reduce the tunnel’s diameter

The Boring company is developing an electric sled. Cars will park on the sled at street level, they will be lowered down into the tunnel, and the sled will transport the car at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour.

While saving on building space for ramps, the system also means tunnels don’t need to be so wide. Building a one-lane tunnel requires a diameter of around 28 feet, but a sled-based system requires a diameter of less than 14 feet. A 50 percent reduction in diameter leads to a potential four times reduction in costs.

Increase the speed of the Tunnel Boring Machine

Current boring machines are slow: the company claims a snail is around 14 times faster than a boring machine. At its first construction site, the company has a pet snail called Gary to illustrate this fact:

The company is aiming to beat the snail, but this is predicated on the other steps falling into place.

Increase the TBM’s power

Musk is aiming to triple the boring machine’s power, but this will require an upgrade in the appropriate cooling systems.

Continuously tunnel

At the moment, soft-soil machines tunnel for just 50 percent of the time. The rest of the time is spent building tunnel support structures. Developing a system where a team can build support structures at the same time as digging is a critical part of Musk’s plan and was referenced back in a February interview.

Automate the TBM

Large boring machines require several operators, but smaller machines are already automated. Musk wants to bring automation technologies to the larger machines.

Go electric

Like the car and the semi truck, Musk wants to demonstrate the power of electric motors by replacing the existing diesel designs with a more modern approach.

Invest in tunneling research and development

The Boring Company claims there has been “virtually no investment” in digging technology in the United States, leading to a stagnation in the market. The construction industry overall has not improved its productivity in the past 50 years. Coupled with the six other steps, the Boring Company could shake up an industry that has grown complacent, bringing new ideas to a stalling marketplace.

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