Elon Musk bores transit tunnel in bid to end LA traffic congestion
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled the first tunnel completed by the underground transit venture he launched two years ago as an ambitious remedy to the infamously heavy traffic in Los Angeles.
- Elon Musk first complained LA traffic was driving him “nuts” on Twitter in 2016
- The entrepreneur put the final price tag for the finished segment at about $US10 million
- Mr Musk plans to develop a high-speed subterranean network that moves people and vehicles at up to 240 kilometres per hour
But contrary to some of his own hype from several months ago, free rides were not part of the grand opening on Tuesday (local time).
In a 30-minute presentation carried by live webcast, Mr Musk touted the newly finished 1.83-kilometre tunnel segment as a breakthrough in low-cost, fast-digging technology being pioneered by his nascent tunnelling firm, the Boring Company.
Mr Musk has advertised the proof-of-concept tunnel as a first step toward developing a high-speed subterranean network capable of whisking vehicles and pedestrians below the “soul-destroying” street traffic of America’s second-largest city at up to 240 kilometres per hour.
Elon Musk is touting his tunnel as a breakthrough in low-cost, fast-digging technology. (AP: Robyn Beck)
But such a system has a long way to go.
The new tunnel was excavated along a path that runs not through Los Angeles but beneath the tiny adjacent municipality of Hawthorne, where Mr Musk’s Boring Company and his SpaceX rocket firm are both headquartered.
Tweet from Elon Musk: Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…
Mr Musk — best known as head of the Tesla electric car manufacturer and energy company — launched his foray into public transit after complaining on Twitter in December 2016 that LA’s traffic was “driving me nuts,” promising then to “build a boring machine and just start digging”.
In May, the company gave the world a preview of the Hawthorne tunnel, posting a fast-forward video of its interior shot by a camera traveling the length of the cylindrical passageway, which measures about 3.7 metres in diameter.
The boring equipment used to dig Mr Musk’s tunnel was put on display before the tunnel was put to the test. (AP: Robyn Beck)
On Tuesday, Mr Musk put the total price tag for the finished segment at about $US10 million, including the cost of excavation, internal infrastructure, lighting, ventilation, safety systems, communications and a track.
By comparison, he said, digging a mile of tunnel by “traditional” engineering methods costs up to $US1 billion and takes three to six months to complete.
Faster than a snail?
Mr Musk boasted of several cost-cutting innovations, including higher-power boring machines, digging narrower tunnels, speeding up dirt removal, and simultaneous excavation and reinforcement.
He also invoked his favourite comparison with a snail, a creature he said moves 14 times faster than the speed of a typical tunnelling machine.
“Aspirationally, we should be slightly faster than a snail,” he said.
Mr Musk did not say how long it took to burrow his new tunnel, which ended up running short of the 3.2-kilometre easement his company originally requested for the project.
But he showed pre-recorded video footage of a newly built elevator station designed to carry passengers from street level to the tunnel’s subterranean entryway.
Attendees at Tuesday’s launch were also treated to a display of the same make of concrete slabs used to create the test tunnel. (AP: Robyn Beck)
The video featured a modified Tesla Model X luxury car on the elevator.
When fully operational, the “loop” system as Mr Musk envisions it will consist of passenger-and-automobile-carrying platforms called “skates” that can zip through the tunnels by way of electric power once they descend into the underground network.
Alternately, he said, passenger cars could be outfitted with retractable side wheels allowing them to travel through the loop autonomously.
Mr Musk arrived at Tuesday night’s event in a Tesla vehicle so equipped, emerging from the car at one end of the tunnel — bathed in green and blue interior lights — as he was cheered by a small, enthusiastic crowd gathered for the presentation.
Mr Musk created a stir earlier this year by promising free trips through the tunnel once it opened.
However, no such rides were in the offing on Tuesday night.
A company message posted online beforehand said tunnel tours “are by invitation only,” citing “unbelievably high demand”.
If successful, the Hawthorne tunnel is envisioned as eventually connecting to a network of other tunnels, yet to be built.
Last month, the Boring Company scrapped plans for a 4.3-kilometre segment under a West Los Angeles neighbourhood, settling litigation brought by community groups opposed to that project.
Free rides in the tunnel were not part of the grand opening, contrary to some of Mr Musk’s own hype. (AP: Robyn Beck)
But Mr Musk’s company said it was moving ahead with a proposed tunnel across town to connect Dodger Stadium, home of the city’s Major League Baseball team, to an existing subway line.
In June, Boring was selected by Chicago to build a 27-kilometre underground transit system linking that city’s downtown to its main airport.
The company has also proposed an East Coast Loop that would run from Washington, DC, to the Maryland suburbs.