Elon Musk updated his vision for the Boring Company today with the unveiling of its first test tunnel in Los Angeles.
They abandoned their “electric skate” plan and replaced it with autonomous electric vehicles, starting with Tesla vehicles, using ‘tracking wheels’.
There are two main parts to the Boring Company and its mission to reduce traffic in metropolitan areas: improving the technology of boring tunnels and developing a fully-electric and autonomous transport system that works well inside those tunnels.
The biggest announcement today has to do with the transportation system.
Previously, the company had been talking about building “electric skates” on which vehicles could park and be transported through the tunnel.
Additionally, they had planned to do “electric pods” for public transportation.
Today, Musk announced that they are dropping both of those ideas in favor of a system of “tracking wheels”, which can be installed as an attachment to vehicles.
They deploy from underneath the vehicle to act as a guide to keep the car from hitting the side of the tunnel.
In a press briefing ahead of the event tonight, Musk said the system could be added to a vehicle during the configuration for “$200 to $300.” He also said that it could be installed as an aftermarket product.
Musk even said that it could be installed on vehicles other than Tesla’s, though they are using the Model X:
“We used Tesla vehicles because I run Tesla. What I am going to do? Use someone else’s car?”
Though, there are several restrictions for a vehicle to be used in the Boring Company’s tunnels that it basically makes Tesla vehicles the only eligible ones at this point.
They need to be electric, be able to maintain a speed of ~150 mph, and have some autonomous capabilities (at least be able to accelerate and brake autonomously).
The Boring Company had Model X SUVs to give test rides to the press, but they weren’t equipped with the final design of the tracking wheels. They weren’t retractable, which makes them impractical on the road but they did their job in the tunnel.
Boring Company Model X Ride
The company did give us a demonstration ride in a Model X with ‘tracking wheels’ inside the tunnel.
While the wheels basically convert the Model X into a train, it was a surprisingly bumpy ride, which the company attributed to some experimentation with the “shelves” on each side of the tunnel.
The Model X drives on those shelves, which consist of concrete sections placed on each side to support the vehicle:
They are still experimenting on how to produce and install those concrete sections as fast as possible. They clearly haven’t quite figured it out yet because some of the sections were clearly resulting in a lot bumpier ride than others.
Musk insisted that it will be an easy fix and once it is done, it will be “as smooth as glass.”
Following today’s launch event, not much has changed on the tunnel boring technology front.
The company says that it learned a lot from its first test tunnel in Hawthorne and it is working on its next-generation boring machine.
They dug ‘Godot’, their first machine, out of the test tunnel and they are now working on ‘Line-Storm’:
But ‘Line-Storm’ is not the final product. They also have a third-generation boring machine called ‘Prufrock’.
For that machine, they are working to increase the power of the machine by a factor 3, modify the cutter design, and add an automated segment erection system.
In a brief with the press prior to the event, Musk said existing tunnel boring companies spend only about 10 minutes mining per hour as the rest is spent installing the reinforcement and deploying all the logistics behind: power, dirt removal, etc.
They see a potential 15x improvement in the speed of boring versus the next best boring technology by engineering a system that automatically takes care of that at the same time as they dig.
Musk said that he expects this new system to be ready “relatively soon”.
Another big part of their plan to reduce the cost of boring the tunnel is to change the economics of moving the dirt, which can represent up to 15% of the total cost of a tunnel.
As previously announced, the company developed a way to make LEGO-like bricks made of the dirt dug from the tunnels.
Instead of moving the dirt costing them money, they plan to sell them to make kits for structures. Musk gave several examples from ancient Egypt, like the pyramids, Sphinx, and the temple of Horus.
Musk claimed that the bricks are more solid than cinderblocks and he suggested that the company could sell them for just 10 cents in order to get rid of the dirt.
They also want to offer them for free to build affordable housing.
At the launch event, the Boring Company built an actual full-size watchtower with brick made of the dirt dug out of the Hawthorne tunnel.
The Boring Company is betting that the combination of going faster, reducing the diameter of the tunnel, and better economics of managing the dirt will result in drastic reduction in the cost of tunneling.
Where most projects cost over $1 billion per mile and take 3 to 6 months per mile, the Boring Company plans to do it for a fraction of the time and the cost.
Musk said that the 1.14-mile test tunnel in Hawthorne cost them only about $10 million and they have yet to implement most of their cost and time-saving ideas.
Boring Company’s Long Term Vision
The mission of the company remains the same: reducing “soul-destroying traffic.”
In the long-term, Musk wants the company to deliver giant networks of tunnels with many layers and main “highway” tunnels acting as a loop with several “exits” leading to stations to get back to the surface.
The only time vehicles slow down is in those exits in order to maintain the ~150 mph top speed in the main tunnels.
With the new tracking wheel product, vehicle drivers will be able to use those tunnels as superhighways for a small fee and the Boring Company plans to also have its own fleet of Tesla vehicles operating inside those tunnels to act as public transport.
Musk says that he expects the Chicago project will be the first full loop that the public will be able to use.
They are also still working on the Dugout loop project in Los Angeles, which they hope will eventually be part of a much larger tunnel system.
Musk said that money won’t be an issue for the company. He is currently personally bankrolling it, but he says that he has been flooded with request to invest.
On top of investment requests, he said that municipalities are also inquiring about projects.
The CEO said that they have a potential project in Las Vegas and they are in the early stages of construction on the east coast hyperloop.
We expect to soon have more news about the hyperloop, which is basically the same as the loop but with low pressure inside the tunnel. Though they are going to need different transport vehicles.