Elon Musk is Boring!

Nicholas El Bizri, Aug 24 2017

Elon Musk has built himself quite the reputation with his optimistic vision and somewhat far-fetched ideas. Both have made him a lot of money and the center of attention on numerous occasions. The Boring Company (TBC), another once of his groundbreaking ideas, has brought Musk into the spotlight once again.

TBC, introduced as an infrastructure and tunneling company, was founded back in late 2016 and is currently led by SpaceX engineer Steve Davis. The inspiration behind the company, funnily enough, arose after Musk voiced his frustration with LA traffic on Twitter. His focus is to alleviate congestion and address the limitations with our current 2-D transportation network.

Musk

As of today, there is no escaping city traffic. Musk, therefore, insists that transportation must go 3D in order to ease congestion. Three-dimensional transportation basically implies flying cars or underground travel. But unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight, safer and a more realistic alternative.

The fact that there is no real limit to how many levels of tunnels a city can have makes such a transportation concept a viable solution to alleviate city traffic. As Musk once said: “The deepest mines are much deeper than the tallest buildings are tall”.

TBC got started right away and has since made some progress. As of February 2017, TBC began digging its 30-foot-wide, 50-foot-long, and 15-foot-deep testing trench. To avoid the hassle of acquiring all necessary construction permits, TBC started its first testing phases on SpaceX premises. 

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Musk has also identified where its first underground network will be. The first tunnel route will supposedly run from LAX to Culver City, then to Santa Monica and end in Westwood. He claims that a tunnel trip will take five minutes or less in comparison to a minimum of 45 minutes in LA traffic.

How It Will Work
You might think that such a design would be fairly complicated but the process of transporting vehicles through this large underground network is pretty simple. First of all, in order to get vehicles below ground, roads will be outfitted with designated loading areas. Cars will park on the platform - essentially an elevator - and will then be lowered into the tunnels. 

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The platform has two purposes: to lower vehicles into the tunnels and to transport them to their destinations. They act as electric skates, basically flat platforms on wheels propelled by an electric motor. 

Here is a clip to get a better idea of how this future transport concept will basically work:

 

The design of the electric skate serves many purposes and results in:

1. Significantly reducing tunnel diameter. Since vehicles are fixed on a sled, there is no need to account for margins of error.

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2.Increased safety. Being fully stabilized and autonomous, electric skates eliminate the possibility of human error.

3. Increased speed. The autonomous skate allows for controlled speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour.

4. Multiple uses. The electric skate can transport automobiles, goods, and/or people. In addition, the possibility of adding a vacuum shell would make room for a Hyperloop Pod capable of travelling at 1000 kilometers per hour.

 

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 5.Emission reduction. Electric skates are zero-emission vehicles – so for every mile, the skate transports a gas-burning vehicle, daily emissions are tremendously reduced.

So, Why Tunnels?
To alleviate traffic, transportation must expand into three dimensions. Given that the option to “go up” with flying cars is nearly impossible right now, the only other option is to “go down” and build tunnels.

There are a couple reasons for tunnels being such an attractive alternative for transportation. First off, there is no real limit to how many layers of tunnels can be built, so any density of traffic can be addressed with ease.

tunnels

Furthermore, tunnels are weatherproof - they can be used in any circumstance and in severe weather transport is not affected. Tunnels are also easier and simpler to implement given that construction and operation is silent and invisible. There is also the lack of road works which does cause any disrupted road traffic.

However, digging tunnels is not without its flaws. They are currently extremely slow and expensive to dig. Some projects may cost as much as $500 million per kilometer. In order for TBC to make its tunnel network feasible, it is going to need to increase tunneling speed and reduce costs significantly.

In order to reduce the costs, Musk introduced the electric skate. By transporting vehicles on an electric skate, tunnel diameter is reduced. If TBC were to build a one-lane tunnel, the tunnel diameter would need to be approximately 28 feet. By placing vehicles on a stabilized electric skate, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet. This 50% reduction reduces tunneling costs by 3-4 times.

As for speed, TBC needs to improve and innovate on its Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). TBMs are naturally super slow – Musk pointed out that a snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil TBM.  TBC has mentioned a couple of ways to increase tunneling speed:

TBM

1. Increase TBM Power
Musk believes that the TBM machine’s power output can be tripled while also coupled with the appropriate upgrades in cooling systems.

2. Continuously Tunnel
When building a tunnel, current TBMs tunnel for 50% of the time and establish tunnel support structures the other 50%. Unfortunately, this is not efficient - Musk plans to modify existing TBM technology to support digging and reinforcement simultaneously.

 3. Automate the TBM
Current large-scale TBMs require numerous human operators. TBC hopes to automate these TBMs in order to increase both safety and efficiency. 

4. Go Electric
There is no surprise that Musk wants to go electric with TBMs. Current tunneling machines most often run on diesel but future TBM locomotives will go electric to increase efficiency and sustainability.

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The Benefits
TBC’s transport concept does not just improve transportation speed and convenience, but also benefits the environment. Once the underground network is available for use, we can expect greenhouse gas emissions to decrease astronomically.

 First off, by providing a high-speed transportation network, it is likely that fewer vehicles will spend time on the road thus, decreasing CO2 emissions.

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Moreover, The Boring Company is investigating technologies that will recycle excavated dirt into useful bricks to be used to build structures. Excavated dirt is usually shipped to disposal locations; this is both costly and environmentally hazardous.  

This concept has been around for thousands of years - the Pyramids being a worthy example. By using recycled bricks as a portion of the tunnel lining itself, the use of concrete is minimized. Since concrete production accounts for 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, recycled bricks reduce both environmental impact and tunneling costs.

If successful, low-cost tunnels would also allow TBC to spearhead Hyperloop adoption and enable rapid, sustainable transit across densely populated regions. Hyperloop transport would provide numerous environmental benefits – covered in our previous article.

hyperloop

The Concerns
Even though TBC has begun boring their tunnel network and have even completed their first underground LA test segment recently, they still have a lot of setbacks to overcome.

As mentioned above, one of the biggest hurdles for TBC is tunneling cost and speed. In order to make this project economically and financially feasible, they will need to pour large amounts of money in R&D to come up with a solution.

 Another issue for them is with the elevator platform. It is most likely that these elevators will take up significant space on roads. TBC will certainly face some issues here; they will either need to buy up land to make space, pay state fees to install their platforms or settle with providing their transportation concept in a limited number of locations.

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