HAWTHORNE, CALIF.—On a breezy Tuesday evening across the busy street from SpaceX’s headquarters, Elon Musk’s Boring Company invited a group of journalists to take a ride through the company’s first test tunnel. The test tunnel stretches 1.14 miles from SpaceX’s former parking lot, under Crenshaw Boulevard, under the SpaceX campus, and finally terminating behind some nondescript warehouses in Hawthorne, at Prairie St.
and 102th St.
The ride was hardly a finished product; judging the success of The Boring Company’s tunnel-digging vision would be impossible at this point. What today’s demo did, though, was offer a proof-of-concept.
Entering the tunnel
Across the street from SpaceX, journalists were ushered down a ramp to the original opening of The Boring Company’s first tunnel. We got into a modified Model X—modified in that it had bumpers added to the wheels to prevent the vehicle from too much undesirable movement while in the tunnel. Then, a driver (who Boring Company employees told us we were strictly not allowed to speak to) drove us up to the mouth of the tunnel, onto the raised curbs that flanked either side of the tunnel walls.
(We were also strictly not allowed to take pictures or video, but the company-provided photos below give you a sense of what we saw).
Through the tunnel
We paused at the entrance of the tunnel until a string of LED lights along the zenith of the tunnel turned green. Then the Model X started rumbling along, gathering speed to a whopping… 45 mph. The curbs along the side of the tunnel were unfinished and quite bumpy, and the tunnel featured curves at the beginning and at the end that seemed unsuited for the kinds of 100+ mph travel that Elon Musk has promised in subsequent tunnels. (Musk later told journalists that the unfinished state of the curbs were due to the company running out of time before today’s event).
The bulk of the length of the tunnel was painted white with a string of blue LEDs lighting the way. Once we were quite far into the tunnel, it became impossible to see an entrance or an exit at either end, which was mildly terrifying (but I’m not particularly claustrophobic, so it was a feeling that I found easy to shrug off). That was also a time for me to notice that the tunnel is extremely narrow. That’s by design, of course. Part of Musk’s pitch is that if internal combustion engines are prohibited from operating in the tunnel, robust airflow isn’t as much of a concern, so tunnels can be smaller in diameter. This, theoretically, saves money in boring, debris removal, and tunnel lining materials. (For the specifics-minded folks out there, the tunnel is 12 feet in internal diameter, with a 14-foot outer diameter. The concrete tunnel walls are fabricated to be one foot thick.)
Exiting the tunnel
We finally reached a span of tunnel where green LEDs let us know that we were close to the exit. The car exited off the tunnel onto an elevator floor in a narrow pit where we were slowly raised back up to street level, in a small parking lot next to some residential buildings. The driver turned onto a city street and navigated us back to the Boring Company media tent.
Trying to “solve traffic”
After our tunnel tour, the group of journalists converged in a room off the SpaceX lobby for a presentation from Elon Musk and Boring Company President Steve Davis on the current state of boring. Musk, who did most of the talking, was mellow and jokey, and spent a longer-than-usual time answering questions after his initial presentation.
Much of Musk’s material rehashed old talking points: “Everyone wants to go out of the 3D structures [buildings] into the 2D system [streets] at the same time,” Musk said. The CEO repeated that many layers of tunnels could be built, to match with depth the height of the tallest buildings. Tunnels are also immune to inclement weather, and several dozen feet underground sound is undetectable from the surface. “Israel is always trying to detect when Hammas is digging tunnels and they can’t,” Musk offered as evidence.
Musk also added that tunnels were a more sustainable way to incorporate transportation into cities. “Unlike freeways or rail, you’re not dividing communities. While I like trains a lot, particularly high speed trains, you can’t have anyone living near the train tracks.”
“And then of course, lairs,” Musk deadpanned, ending his list of reasons to build tunnels. “If you want a good lair, it’s got to be underground. Lairs plural.” When no one laughed, the CEO chuckled, “Dry room here,” eliciting some giggles.
But first, reimagine boring
Although Musk said many times over the evening that he wants to “solve traffic,” The Boring Company’s primary stated goal was to improve the speed and cost of tunnel digging over modern boring machines. Currently, Musk said, the fastest tunnels are built at a rate of a mile every three to six months, at a cost of up to $1 billion per mile in some heavily populated cities. Instead, The Boring Company hopes to improve its speed by automating erection of the concrete tunnel segments so that it’s simultaneous with boring.
The rest of the improvement in boring speed would come from increasing the power of the boring machine by three times while also improving the drill head to accommodate the additional work. Together with automating segment construction, this should offer a 15-fold improvement in drilling speed, Musk said.
Musk said that a lot of the cost decreases would follow from the speed improvements. “If you have the same crew, and that crew is able to work 15 times faster, you’ve cut your labor cost,” Musk said.
Additionally, The Boring Company makes its concrete on site, using dirt excavated from the tunnel itself, which saves on cost. As mentioned above, the smaller diameter of the Boring Company’s tunnel also helps reduce cost.
The Boring Company has long said that its test tunnel in Hawthorne is exploratory in nature and hasn’t incorporated a lot of the improvements that Musk thinks is possible in boring. Outside of the Hawthorne tunnel today, a “highly modified” second-generation boring machine called Line Storm rested along side Godot, the unmodified boring machine that the company used to dig the test tunnel. After Line Storm, Musk said, The Boring Company would build its first boring machine from the ground up, which will be called Prufrock.
Forget the electric skate
The Boring Company has long said that a special electric skate would propel vehicles and passengers at more than 100 miles per hour through its “Loop” tunnels. But today, Musk said the only vehicles that would enter his tunnels in the future would be autonomous, electric vehicles with deployable tracking wheels. (The vehicles did not necessarily have to be Tesla vehicles, Musk said, but they will have to be autonomous and electric, and they will have to have tracking wheels added on, either in production or with a $200-to-$300 after-market addition.)
For those without their own autonomous and electric vehicle, the system would have a number of circulating public transport vehicles that riders could order at a station for a small fee. Musk said a shared vehicle ride could run as low as $1, but he didn’t elaborate too much on cost or profit to the privately-held Boring Company. The CEO said that The Boring Company would operate its own systems where appropriate, or it could sell a system to a municipality and let the buyer operate the system.
Musk did say towards the end of the evening that he had contributed somewhere along the lines of $40 million of his private money to The Boring Company, and building the Hawthorne test tunnel cost the company around $10 million. He estimated that an 18-mile, two-way Loop like the one the company is contracted to build in Chicago will run somewhere around $1 billion, while a smaller complete system could run under $100 million.
The CEO has said The Boring Company is also entertaining offers from cities to build tunnels for utility and water lines, which will allow municipal services to address problems in the lines without digging up the street. President Steve Davis noted that The Boring Company is fielding more than five and fewer than 20 inquiries per week from utilities interested in cheap tunnels to house utility lines.
In the grand scheme of things, tonight’s tunnel opening was a small step for The Boring Company. But Musk’s ambitions are, as usual, greater than what exists currently. Musk said the systems that he has plans to build now are stepping stones to a Baltimore-DC Hyperloop (a Hyperloop is a theoretical system that Musk has described as running at 700 mph, on a levitating, low-pressure track). In response to a journalist question about Mars, Musk said his boring equipment could certainly be used to create pressurized, underground housing for humans on the planet. Although the first test drive through the tunnel felt quite rough, it clearly has a long way to go.