Groundbreaking: Taking traffic underground

When it comes to groundbreaking ideas, you can count on Elon Musk to have one. The brilliant mind behind PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity has a new idea, and this time, Musk aims to solve traffic congestion in cities like Los Angeles, California.

In a TED talk last year, Musk described traffic as “soul-destroying.” He hopes to alleviate congestion—and change the experience people are having in traffic—by creating a network of three-dimensional (3D) tunnels underground.

Musk’s idea is a 3D solution, because it alleviates traffic congestion by not building outward—with more roads or systems on the ground itself—but building downward and taking traffic to literally another level.

The problem: Traffic congestion

The “City of Angels,” as it’s called, is infamous for its rush hour traffic.

Freeway traffic in Los Angeles, California. Photo from Wikipedia
Freeway traffic in Los Angeles, California.
Photo from Wikipedia

Drivers spend more time in rush hour traffic in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world, making it one of the most traffic-congested cities internationally. Over 80 percent of commuters choose to drive or carpool to work. This is, in part, because the city’s public transportation systems aren’t so practical.

Musk has given his answer to the problem, which includes establishing transportation networks that move people below the Earth’s surface, where there aren’t things like houses, parks, buildings, lakes, and rivers—things that shouldn’t have to be compromised to build more roads.

The solution: The Boring Company

It almost goes without saying that Musk is planning no ordinary transportation network: he’s planning a total transportation and highway revolution. The Boring Company is the company taking on the revolution, and it’s anything but “boring.”

The company, innovated by Musk, says on its website that a large network of tunnels would fix congestion in cities like Los Angeles. It is promising “fast to dig, low cost tunnels.” The benefit of tunnels, it says, is that there’s no limit to how many tunnels that can be built underground, whereas there is certainly a limit to building transportation networks on the surface.

Elon Musk giving his “boring” TED talk in 2017. Photo from Wikipedia
Elon Musk giving his “boring” TED talk in 2017.
Photo from Wikipedia

The company also boasts that the tunnels will be weatherproof, won’t divide existing communities, and that their construction and operation would be “silent and invisible.” Such tunnels could one day be used for the proposed Hyperloop. See what we mean by transportation and highway revolution?

Combatting costs

Often times, the argument against new transportation ideas is cost. Traditionally, boring tunnels underground, for things like subway networks, have been really expensive—costing as much as $1 billion per mile.

The Boring Company thinks they can reduce these costs significantly—perhaps even three to four times less. It plans to reduce costs by first boring smaller tunnels and then maximizing efficiency of the boring process by updating their existing tunnel boring machine (TBM) with modern technology.

The Boring Company’s TBM. Photo from The Boring Company
The Boring Company’s TBM.
Photo from The Boring Company

The future: Loop

“Loop” is what they’re calling the underground transportation system that Musk has envisioned.

It’s similar to the Hyperloop, but would operate without the vacuum-like tube that eliminates air friction, which allows the Hyperloop to travel at hyper fast speeds (a proposed 600+ miles per hour). Loop (and the Hyperloop, for that matter) would be entirely different from other underground transportation systems that exist today.

Unlike the subway system, Loop would use electric skates instead of conventional subway cars. Electric skates are platforms on wheels that are propelled by multiple electric motors. The benefit of using electric skates is that they can be adapted to any car, rather than the car having to modified to fit the rail system.

Other benefits of using electric skates is that they’re faster than conventional subway cars and automated using artificial intelligence, meaning they don’t always need a person to tell the machines what to do and where to go. See a preview of the Loop here.

Electric skate pod. Photo from The Boring Company
Electric skate pod.
Photo from The Boring Company

Boring forward

So, all this sounds pretty amazing, right? But how long until we actually see this stuff in the works? What’s being done?

The Boring Company currently has plans for four different projects. The first is called “Hawthorne”—the initial test tunnel under construction in Hawthorne, California, where SpaceX, The Boring Company, and Tesla have their headquarters.

Musk is also working on a tunnel project in Los Angeles. The project would be a 2.7 mile “proof-of-process” tunnel that could be used for system and safety testing. Progress is being made every day, check out the tentative plans here.

There’s also tunneling projects in the works on the East Coast and in Chicago. The Boring Company has been chosen by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain an express service for the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Check out updates on the Chicago project here and updates on the East Coast project here.

Big ideas worth building (and boring)

Musk and his company could be on the verge of something groundbreaking. He wants to solve traffic congestion and other traffic problems not by building another road, another train system, or by expanding traffic lanes to accommodate more cars—he is rethinking the way things are done entirely. He is taking traffic underground.

Sometimes these big ideas can be hard to imagine and even harder to believe in. Sometimes, big ideas just sound crazy. But it was Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant people ever to have lived, who said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

References

Related links

(FAQ) The Boring Company: www.boringcompany.com/faq/

(Video) The Boring Company: vimeo.com/259707751

(Video) Tunnel Time-Lapse: vimeo.com/269219567

(Video) TED Talks, The future we're building -- and boring: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIwLWfaAg-8

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer