Is Elon Musk’s “The Boring Company” the future of tunneling or just a fad?

Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. is all over the news as the next big smart city technology, offering to transform the face of urban transportation by, quite simply, placing it all underground. Musk’s proposed series of overlapping tunnel networks, which will transport you across city, country, and continent on “skate” platforms or through its new electric transportation system ‘Hyperloop’, may seem like some kind of sci-fi fantasy. But The Boring Co. is already making agreements with actual cities. In May 2018, Musk announced a partnership with LA metro for its tunnel network. Los Angeles City Council has even backed exempting it from an environmental impact review in order to help speed up the start of drilling the 2.7-mile test tunnel under the city’s west side. Following that, the company is seeking approval to dig a 6.5-mile “proof-of-concept” tunnel underneath Los Angeles, where verification tests of all the necessary systems and equipment for the transportation systems – along with the tunnel-building processes – will be tested.

The Boring Co. is also in talks with the US government and other city councils about possible projects in Chicago and a route that one day might connect New York and Washington. Once built, the tunnels will act as underground roads where autonomous electric “skate” platforms lowered by elevators from the street will speed along at 120 miles per hour or more, carrying cars or “passenger transit pods”. Long-distance tunnels connecting cities will use Hyperloop tube trains, traveling at speeds over 600mph.

A Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) also known as a Mole (photo courtesy of The Boring Company)

A revolution in transport and tunneling?

Musk’s underground tunnels, combined with his proposed transportation option, have great potential to deal with what he refers to as “soul-destroying traffic”. They will supposedly take cars off the streets without changing the urban above-ground landscape, cutting congestion and air pollution. The innovation and dramatic cost reduction in tunnel boring machines facilitated by The Boring Co. will also possibly revolutionize tunneling as we know it, allowing tunnels for high-volume rapid transit systems to be built a lot more easily and – importantly – quickly. While the technology is not quite there yet, it could be in a few years – the LA proof of concept trial may well prove its potential. However, real questions remain not only over whether Musk’s idea is possible or safe but, perhaps more importantly, whether people actually want it.

High costs

The first issue is that it is incredibly expensive. Developing the technology won’t be cheap – The Boring Co. has raised nearly $113 million, of which $100 million or so came from Musk – to enact their projects. And then there is the question of who will be paying for these “public transportation” projects – the public themselves or The Boring Co.? With current cuts to local government funding in America and beyond, many local authorities will struggle to find the funds to invest in what many consider a vanity project. Moreover, how much will be using these tunnels cost to use? Musk claims that they will be affordable – but this is by no means guaranteed given the initial investment required.

Engineering challenges

There are also significant engineering challenges. The concept of “car elevators” on “skates” comes with a lot of engineering challenges, such as the reliability and safety of the elevator, loading and unloading times, and the number of dedicated areas in a city you’d need to do this at scale. For example, The Boring Co. has so far failed to address the mechanics of the surface-level points of entry and exit above the tunnel. Their suggested ramps could very easily cause jams – and what about the health and safety issues of having gaping holes in the middle of the road?

Safety issues

Safety issues are something that seems to stand out the most with The Boring Co.’s ideas. Musk claims that he can build transportation-oriented tunnels faster and cheaper than current technology, but this is mainly because his machines will drill them at about half the diameter of current subway tunnels. This has huge safety risks: regulations stipulate that tunnels must be at the very least 21.5 foot in diameter in order to leave enough space (3 meters) for people to escape the vehicle in an emergency. Musk has not addressed how he will make sure that his much smaller tunnels fit with safety regulations and do not put peoples’ lives at risk.

Swimming upstream

The Boring Co. originally proposed tunnels for personal vehicles and Musk, a resident of LA and founder of a private-vehicle company, Tesla, still seems to have a private-vehicle-orientated vision. Most urban planning policy, however, is shifting towards ending private-vehicle use and encouraging greater public transport usage and a more outdoor lifestyle – there is now a widespread acceptance that the more capacity for cars you have, the more congestion you will get. Although Musk recently shifted his plan and now specifies that The Boring Co. will focus on offering transit service to pedestrians and cyclists, this requires the kind of mass vehicles that would not currently be safe in his tunnels.

Lacking community engagement or consensus

Perhaps the most pressing problem with Musk’s proposal is that there is no evidence so far that people want these tunnels. Most sociological studies conclude that people like living in cities where they can access services easily on foot or by bike, where public transport services are timely, comprehensive and well-serviced, and where traffic and air-pollution are minimal. Although underground subway systems are integral to many large cities worldwide, who says that people would be happy to regularly travel around the city through tiny, inescapable tunnels in individual or multi-person pods? This question leads us to the conclusion that Musk is not looking to follow an inclusive, user-centric research and design model – increasingly seen as the only way to create physical products or urban policies that are actually relevant to the people who live in cities.

His idea assumes that we must try out a solution to congestion – and one that appeases the desire for private vehicles – without actually taking the time to ask everyone in a city what they would like. It also seems to bypass dominant trends coming out of urban studies, transport and sociological/anthropological research.

His new transportation proposal also fails to address the individual concerns and desires of different social groups – particularly those who are marginalized or vulnerable. For instance, women may not feel comfortable being confined to an autonomous vehicle – whether underground or overground – controlled by a central computer or even potentially a male operator. People from low socio-economic backgrounds may be concerned about being able to afford this transport option, or about where stations will be placed, as underprivileged neighborhoods are so often neglected when it comes to transit development.

Conclusion: real potential but many issues still remain

The Boring Company has definite potential to revolutionize how tunnels are built, but it seems to be more centered around changing urban transportation than the tunneling industry – not least because the smaller diameter of its tunnels may not be viable in all situations. The company has also failed to address important issues such as how they would innovate tunnel instrumentation and monitoring, its whole focus currently being on transformative vehicle development rather than the tunneling itself.

A lot more development and research needs to be done before we decide if these urban underground tunnels are even desirable, let alone viable. There is a pressing need to include local residents in the development of the idea to assess if it is relevant and beneficial to current and future urban communities. Indeed, there is increasing recognition that Smart City planning should be people-centric right from the beginning, involving communities in co-creating the places that they live, rather than just “consultatory”, which is based on presenting ideas to people once they have been formulated. Musk seems insistent on following the old, consultatory model. He is proposing a new technological concept that will change communities significantly and expects governments – and then eventually the communities they govern – to simply accept a finished product. In this sense, the viability of The Boring Co.’s concept is not all that relevant in the end: what is really important is questioning its ability to actually improve the lives of those living in LA – and beyond – in the future.