If popular media is to be taken on face value, Elon Musk could very well be an enigma. But when the aura wanes and as the dust settles behind it, a lot of the ideas – albeit visionary – might actually sound unfeasible and borderline dubious. The Boring Company, another innovative idea in the long list of Elon Musk’s ventures was launched amidst considerable reception in April last year. But fast forward to more than a year later, the company has little to show for it, as it is still under works on its first experimental test tunnel that runs across SpaceX property.
In all honesty, the move to reinvent tunnel boring is a great idea especially in the U.S., where tunneling expenses are said to be the highest in the world – courtesy, the high labor costs and general inefficiency in tunnel boring machines (TBMs). TBMs are notoriously overpriced and for the lack of a better explanation – ridiculously slow.
A combination of all these factors has led to New York City’s newest subway line costing a mind-boggling $2.73 billion per mile – boring a bigger hole in the government’s pocket than on the ground.
The Boring Company is envisioning a future where it can bring down the costs associated with tunneling, by reducing the width of the tunnel and increasing the speed of tunneling by at least tenfold. The company argues that increasing the speed would be possible by increasing TBM’s output power, continuous tunneling as opposed to the combination of tunneling and tunnel supporting as done today, and by automating the TBM to improve efficiency.
A promotional clip from the company showed a futuristic city with this elegant solution in place, which on the facade looked extremely promising. But when dug deeper, it does raise a few red flags, the most evident one being the number of vehicles that the system could accommodate, as at a cursory glance, it looked to be too less to make an impact on reducing traffic above ground.
But as the technical difficulties have been done with, there have surfaced practical problems that on hindsight, might end up being the biggest hurdle to The Boring Company. The company’s proposed proof of concept route underneath Los Angeles has been struck down by an environmental lawsuit, as the idea apparently had not gone well with the local neighborhood activist groups.
In light of this, The Boring Company had announced this Tuesday that it has amicably settled a lawsuit with the activist groups, though the terms of the settlement have remained confidential. The proposed tunnel was a proof of concept (PoC) under LA’s Sepulveda Boulevard, which when extended into a full-fledged system could accommodate an array of cyclists, bikers, and pedestrians underground, bypassing the traffic logjams over ground.
However, two parties were not too pleased with this idea – one, being the government of Culver City, wherein a part of the proposed line runs, and the other being Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that has already begun works for a transportation corridor. Apart from the basic concerns on the feasibility of such a project, the more apparent reason for the chagrin was presumably about Musk “privatizing” a mode of public transport at the heart of the city. And with the bills that construction of such a system would raise, the tolls for using this underground system might be out of reach for a bulk of the working class.
In a strongly worded letter to the LA City Council earlier this year, the Brentwood Residents Coalition (BRC) had pointed out that the environmental impact of the tunnel in the region is a cause for concern, and that the process to approving such a project was “brief and nontransparent.”
That said, the PoC was part of a larger project, where the BRC accused The Boring Corporation to having tried evading the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) “by dividing a single project into smaller individual sub-projects,” to artificially downplay potential impact.
In essence, authorities and local activist groups are concerned that such a mode of transport could only be fashioned to fit the interests of the elite few, unequivocally ignoring the needs of the rest, and also because privatized systems would mean that the government would have no control over it.
As things stand, the LA underground corridor is under wraps, and it is time for The Boring Company to realize that with regard to transportation networks, it is not just about the technology itself, but also about navigating a massive amount of red-tape on ground, before they expect some traction.