Elon Musk Says L.A. Tunnel Will Cost Less Than a Bus Ticket. But How?

Thursday night Elon Musk showed off a portion of the Boring Company’s first proof-of-concept tunnel underneath a suburban stretch of Los Angeles that he says will be open for free rides in a few months. Musk made this announcement on his Instagram and stated that if this trail system is a success he will aim to make using the full-fledged tunnels cheaper than a bus ticket.

“As mentioned in prior posts, once fully operational (demo system rides will be free), the system will always give priority to pods for pedestrians & cyclists for less than the cost of a bus ticket,” he wrote on Instagram.

Musk is known to set lofty goals for his tech ventures, but making a futuristic subway system cheaper than a method of transportation that’s been around since the 19th century sounds ludicrous. The CEO often makes bold claims and announcements without considering that the challenges might be too restrictive.

Indeed, some experts are skeptical Musk’s plan will get off (or under) the ground at all, despite his best intentions and advanced tech. “The problem is not lack of technology, or even lack of capital resource. I mean, we could have flying cars, we could dig underground — all of that is irrelevant, really,” Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, told Mic in May 2017. “The problem is getting collective officials and politicians to do the thing that is most efficient.” In short, blame the bureaucracy.

While Musk hasn’t offered a comprehensive blueprint, announcements and information on the Boring Company’s site offer insight on how affordable, subterranean commuting could — in theory — become a reality.

The Boring Company Will Decrease Cost of Tunneling

Musk will be the first to admit that tunneling is pretty damn expensive. The Boring Company’s FAQ page states that some projects can get as costly as $1 billion per mile, making large-scale projects like the Hyperloop seem like an impossibility. This is precisely why Boring’s first order of action is to make digging tunnels 10 times cheaper.

It intends to do this by reducing the diameter of its tunnels by half the current standard, so from 28 feet (8.5 meters) to 14 feet (4.3 meters). This reduction in size already cuts down cost by three to four times, according to the company. Secondly, it wants to completely revamp Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM) by automating them, increasing speed, and having them continuously tunnel. This would not only make the process quicker but also reduce the cost of manual labor that goes into projects like these.

Red shows the proposed Phase 1 proof-of-process tunnel for which The Boring Company has filed an excavation permit application. Blue indicates potential Phase 2 expansion options, and is included as a concept, not as a finalized alignment.The Boring Company

The Boring Company’s “Urban Loop System”

The Boring Company won’t just be for trains. On March 9, Musk posted an animated video depicting an “Urban Loop” transportation system that would prioritize pedestrian and cyclist traffic, then bus, then car traffic. The aim is to incentivize all people to use these tunnels and not just those with cars. More tunnel takers would hypothetically mean lower prices, assuming increased profit would trickle down to consumers.

This system would also vastly cut down on government maintenance of roads. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, states spend close to $40 billion on routine maintenance of highways and bridges and on highway law enforcement and highway safety yearly. Reducing the use of above-ground roads and pushing for more pedestrian traffic could diminish the wear and tear of our current streets and the potential Urban Loop of the future.

An artist's rendering of what a Boring Company bus would look like.The Boring Company
An artist's rendering of what a Boring Company bus would look like.

The Boring Company Wants to Go Fully Electric

Finally, Musk wants to make his tunneling machine and the buses that will operate in the urban loop fully electric. A 2017 study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Lab found that the cost of fuel per mile was $0.41 for battery-electric buses and $0.50 for fossil-fuel buses.

In the same Urban Loop announcement, Musk unveiled conceptual designs of an electric bus that would cruise through the Boring Company’s tunnels. These would be more cost-effective than traditional buses as shown by the aforementioned study and they would incentivize the use of public transportation.

The bottom line: The game plan for Elon Musk’s ambitious underground tunnel system might still be on the vague side, but there are plenty of ideas that could be implemented to completely revolutionize how we get from Point A to Point B.

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