We’ve spoken a little bit about Elon Musk in our tech update articles. For those who have been living underground for the last couple of years, Musk is the South African-born billionaire behind companies such as Tesla and SpaceX. He even helped turn PayPal into the online payment behemoth that it is today. And then, there’s the Boring Company.
You may have come across news of flamethrowers and hyperloops and lego bricks and thought, well, this company doesn’t sound very boring at all. Yes, we know, it’s not that kind of boring.
The Boring Company is an infrastructure and tunnel construction company founded by Musk in 2016. The goal of the company is to, essentially, solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic. As stated on its FAQ page, in order to solve this problem, roads must go 3D. This means committing to a future of flying cars or tunnels.
“Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight and won’t fall on your head. A large network of tunnels many levels deep would fix congestion in any city, no matter how large it grew.”
As stated on the page, the Boring Company could simply just continue to add levels to this underground system. The key to making this a reality is to increase tunnelling speed and drop costs, it states, but in reality there are many more questions to ask.
We took a look at everything the company is working on, and how it all fits in with Musk’s other, greater ambitions.
Another Piece In The Puzzle
Musk has more than one horse in the great transportation race. Tesla is the world’s leading manufacturer of electric vehicles. SpaceX is making enormous strides toward space exploration and transportation. The Boring Company is looking into building a vast network of underground tunnels to solve the surface-level traffic congestion.
How does this all fit together?
Musk’s ultimate end game, for a long time now, has been to colonise Mars.
There’s a whole lot of sharing going on between the companies in Musk’s empire. For instance, SpaceX and the Boring Company have both borrowed from Tesla’s battery technology. Then, there are plans for a SpaceX satellite broadband service which could possibly connect all Tesla vehicles on the road.
If we were to leave this rock one day and settle on another planet, such as Mars, we would need this technology in order to survive. All of it. One of the many hurdles we’re facing when it comes to setting up residence on the Red Planet is that we as human beings don’t fare too well when exposed to intense radiation.
Mars doesn’t have a very strong magnetic field, which is exactly what’s protecting us here on Earth. So, the popular sci-fi idea of living in a large greenhouse-type bubble on the surface may not be very plausible at all.
To avoid exposure to this radiation, we’d have to go deep underground. We would need a reliable source of energy. We’d need to get there in one piece. And so it all begins to tie together.
Until that technology is perfected, though, we’ve got our own planet to sort out.
The Boring Company Tunnels
The benefits of taking transportation underground have been clear for a long time now – as evidenced in subway systems around the globe. As the Boring Company suggests, there is no practical limit to how many layers of tunnels can be built. Any level of traffic could be addressed. Tunnels are also weatherproof, very much unlike flying vehicles. Construction and operation of such a system is silent and invisible to anyone on the surface. And lastly, tunnels do not divide communities with lanes and barriers.
A project of this enormity has never been undertaken before because the costs associated with such an endeavour are gargantuan. Some projects end up costing as much as $1 billion per mile, and this just isn’t feasible.
So, the Boring Company aims to reduce the tunnel diameter and increase the speed of the TBMs – Tunnel Boring Machines – which are incredibly slow. By mounting vehicles on an electric skate, tunnels can be reduced enough to cut tunnelling costs by 3-4 times.
With newer TBMs being developed by the company itself, they aim to increase power, tunnel continuously without pause, automate larger machines and go entirely electric instead of diesel-operated. Coupled with looking into extensive tunnelling research and development – which is pretty much non-existent right now – TBMs could soon be a lot safer and more efficient.
So, it could work. But what are the plans?
Loop / Hyperloop
The Loop was essentially designed to be a high-speed underground public transportation system. Initially, the purpose of the project was to get vehicles off the roads and into the tunnels instead, where the entire vehicle would be transported at rapid speed.
That idea has changed a little bit.
Now, Musk wants to transport pedestrians and cyclists by using shuttle-like vehicles on automated electric skates. The ‘pods’ will be able to carry between 8 and 16 passengers at around 240km/h.
This decision to change the direction of the company may have come about after Musk himself faced a firing squad of criticism. Transit advocates went so far as to deride him for being an out-of-touch billionaire. A man at the helm of a company which intends to provide a transportation network solely accessible to the rich, who don’t want to pay for shared infrastructure.
This shift in priority will no doubt go a long way toward securing all the permits required to dig up the ground beneath major US cities. A smart move, then.
The Hyperloop is another variant of the same system, one which operates at over 950km/h in a pressurised cabin.
Musk has declared that the plan is still to transport full vehicles one day, but that for now; priority will be given to pedestrians. The price of a trip on the Loop is said to cost only $1 – less than that of a bus ticket.
Testing and experimentation on the system will commence in a short tunnel built on private property with private funds, with plans on testing in other areas as well. It’s still very much a matter of early days, but the future looks promising.
What to do with all that earth being excavated from the tunnels? Typically, this dirt would be shipped offsite to disposal locations.
“This process is costly, time-consuming, noisy, and can be environmentally hazardous,” said the company. “The Boring Company is investigating technologies that will recycle the earth into useful bricks to be used to build structures. This is not a new concept, as buildings have been constructed from earth for thousands of years including, according to recent evidence, the Pyramids. These bricks can potentially be used as a portion of the tunnel lining itself, which is typically built from concrete. Since concrete production accounts for 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, earth bricks would reduce both environmental impact and tunnelling costs.”
The idea of using these bricks to line the tunnels themselves is ingenious. Musk, however, has also floated the idea of using them for low cost housing. While this is a nice enough idea on paper, it does pose a number of difficulties.
Still a great idea, and it doesn’t end there.
As far as the transporting of the dirt itself goes, the Boring Company has created a battery-powered electric locomotive. The train is able to move a quarter-million pounds of dirt per load.
“I kind of think we’re the first to use a battery-powered locomotive of that size,” said Musk.
Playing With Fire
Last December, Musk tweeted that the company would begin to offer limited edition flamethrowers after selling off its 50 000th Boring Company hat. Most people thought Musk was just joking around, but sure enough as soon as the hats cleared out, the flamethrower was announced.
Musk sold all 20 000 flamethrowers within four days, at $500 each. The tunnelling startup brought in over $10 million, and raised some eyebrows in the process.
California assemblyman, Miguel Santiago, expressed opposition to the device. He cited safety concerns and attempted to remind everybody of how flammable California has been over the last couple of years.
Customs agencies also came out and stated that they would refuse to ship any device labelled as a flamethrower. In response, Musk rebranded the device. Opting to call it Not-a-Flamethrower.
The company will begin shipping out of the devices in the next couple of weeks, following a pick-up party. Musk has had to arrange for custom delivery to those who purchased the device, citing ‘delivery challenges.’
As it turns out, nobody really wants to ship anything to do with propane.