At first, the alley looked like many others: cinder block walls, neglected asphalt, and chain link fences that back up on beige single family bungalows.
There was one big difference, though. At the end of this unnamed alley between 122nd and 120th streets in Hawthorne, California is a subterranean elevator that can transport a small SUV underground. Oh, and that car-sized elevator? It’s owned by Elon Musk. The guy helming Tesla and SpaceX. And the Boring Company.
On Tuesday, Musk held a proof of concept launch event for his 1.4-mile long test tunnel at SpaceX headquarters, which is just outside Los Angeles. Musk said he chose the location for his first tunnel so that he would be able to watch progress from the window at his desk.
It’s been two years since Musk grumbled on Twitter that he would defeat Los Angeles gridlock with tunnels filled with fast-moving, autonomous electric vehicles (they don’t have to be Teslas). The past two years have been filled with controversies, hyperbole, and slick renderings. But this was the first time members of the public got to ride in the Hawthorne tunnel.
What the Boring Company showed off Tuesday was not the auto-piloted, highly-efficient version of a congestion-defeating underground artery that Musk has proposed and that the company is working towards. For one, the Boring Company has nixed the original concept of tunnel-traversing “skates” that transport cars. Instead, autonomous cars will be able to drive straight on the tunnel — as long as they’re equipped with “deployable tracking wheels,” a Boring Company invention described as horizontal wheels that can attach to any car. Those wheels will supposedly allow vehicles to navigate the narrow tunnel. At 150 mph.
In addition to this change, the test tunnel is obviously still a work in progress, which Musk and the Boring Company team emphasized throughout the press tour. The elevator is slow, and construction is rough and exposed. Switching on the green light to signal “go” still appears to be a manual process. Most notably, the tunnel ride in a Tesla Model X was bumpy and didn’t surpass a top speed of 40 mph.
But the Hawthorne tunnel is a tunnel, made with the Boring Company’s own modified machines, materials, and concrete; on that Musk has delivered. The Boring Company says the tunnel serves as a proof of concept for the tunnel-based transportation system that Musk wants to install throughout Los Angeles — and the rest of the United States. Over the summer, Musk vowed to build a 17-mile tunnel in Chicago from downtown to the O’Hare airport. He had Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s backing on that one, which is estimated to cost $1 billion. The project is currently under environmental review.
A look inside the tunnel without any vehicles.
Image: Boring Company
“This would ultimately be part of a much larger network in greater Los Angeles that allows people to travel all around the city,” Elon Musk said while speaking with members of the press.
If that dream is to materialize, however, the Boring Company still has a ways to go. Even putting aside all the technical challenges, this test tunnel was able to surpass many of the typical regulations and roadblocks that hold up transportation projects because of eager city officials; Musk says getting all the necessary approvals will be the tunnels’ biggest challenge. So at this point, the “proof of concept” isn’t so much proof as it is an Ok, Maybe. (The Boring Company has already nixed a test tunnel in West LA after neighbors put up a fight. The residents sued and Musk tabled that project in favor of the Hawthorne one on his property.)
Then again, Musk’s high-speed tunnel is the first of its kind, made with proprietary equipment, all engineered in house — and he has a gift for cutting through red tape and attracting interested cities who are prepared to waive their regulations. So judging by Musks’s track record, the proof he sought to demonstrate today may yet materialize.
“It’s the tunnel equivalent of Broadway,” Musk said. “If you can dig a tunnel in LA, you can dig it anywhere.”
Down, down, down
After showing off the Boring Company’s custom tunnel molds and its boring machine named Godot (“because we were waiting for it so long,” Musk said), Boring Company employees led us to a a white Tesla Model X with its falcon-wing doors swung wide open. Boring Company intends for all vehicles in the tunnel to have autonomous capabilities, so that it can deliver the abrupt starts and stops an efficient high speed tunnel requires. But, for now, we had a driver named Joe.
Image: Boring Company
After sitting in traffic on a nearby street, Joe drove us to the Western “O’Leary Station.” The station is named for a Boring Company team member that died. As we drove up, a woman held the hand of a toddler while they crossed the street, looking at us with bemusement. Then, all of a sudden, there was a gate, and a lot of Boring Company hats.
We drove onto a circle, with a diameter slightly longer than the Model X. It had slats and it looked vaguely like a Lazy Susan, though it did not proceed to spin. Instead, the floor opened on either side of us. And we descended.
We slowly dropped 30 feet, as Joe described it, surrounded by exposed metal beams. A white tunnel encircled by red, green, and blue light appeared. It looked vaguely like a 2001: Space Odyssey hallway, but … bigger. Closer inspection revealed concrete sides and tracks, with a trough in the middle, sometimes slatted, sometimes open. According to the Boring Company, the interiors of the tunnels are 12 feet in diameter.
Then, the light turned green. With a lurch, we accelerated. The ride was bumpy and not particularly fast. Joe drove with his hands on the wheels, but demonstrated that he could take his hands off the wheels and the “deployable tracking wheels” would guide us. After a few minutes, the lights changed to blue, and we emerged onto the ramp where we’d first gotten in the car. There was no elevator on the other end. No efficient high speed exit.
My ride in the Boring Company’s Hawthorne test tunnel was a couple minutes going 40 mph underground, and not much more.
So then why did Elon Musk shortly later call his first ride in the tunnel “an epiphany”?
Because, he said, he thinks this changes everything.
Death to Traffic
The reality of the test tunnel was not what I had imagined. But that’s partly because the Boring Company’s vision for what this tunnel will be has itself changed.
It honestly took Elon Musk explaining in person how the tunnels will work to understand how they could help solve traffic.
“It’s much more like an underground highway than it is a subway”
“It’s much more like an underground highway than it is a subway,” Musk said. “It’s not like you’re going through a whole series of stops.”
The basic idea is that there will be small “stations” all around Los Angeles — Musk envisions 10 times the amount of loop stations as subway stations. Individual drivers will pull up to these stations, which will either be elevators, or ramps, where space allows. The Boring Company (or whoever owns and operates the tunnel system) will also provide vehicles to fit pedestrians and cyclists; Musk thinks they should serve between four and seven people at a time.
All vehicles — whether private or tunnel operator-owned — will need to be equipped with deployable tracking wheels. These are horizontally-oriented wheels that fit underneath a car and swing out to sit at the side of the two front wheels. They essentially drive on the walls of the track, keeping the cars along the tunnel. Musk estimates that any car could add these for $200 or $300.
What it looks like outside the tunnel.
Image: Boring Company
“What we regard as a profound breakthrough is the ability to convert a normal car into a passively stable micro-pod or train,” Musk said of the tracking wheels. “This is a small but extremely profound thing. Previously we were going with having an electric skate. But that’s far more complex. This is literally your car, and you just need this extra feature.”
So after turning any car into a pod of sorts, cars descend down into the tunnel. Then, they’ll travel at high speeds, never stopping for lane changes or anything else that slows down traffic. They’ll only slow down once they reach the “spurs,” or what Boring Company is basically calling off ramps.
“The main arteries will be going super fast,” Musk said. “It’s only when you want to get off the loop system that you slow down.”
Musk envisions that congestion at the exits can simply be solved with … many, many exits. Exits the size of two parking spaces. And more tunnels. “Infinite” amounts of tunnels, stacked one on top of one another.
So where are the tunnels?
The test tunnel experience was bumpy in both the literal and figurative senses. And Musk, and the Boring Company team, acknowledge that they still have a ways to go before tunnels come to save us all — though, in typical Musk fashion, he said that he thinks it will be well within a decade. (Note: He has said in the past he didn’t think the Boring Company would work out at all. So take this with a grain of salt.)
“If things go well, we’ll hopefully have the whole network up and running by 2028,” Musk said. “Ten years sounds like infinity.”
Musk thinks that the biggest challenges will come in the form of regulations and government red tape.
But the technology challenges the Boring Company has to overcome won’t be a small feat, either. The normal obstacles to tunneling, Musk explained, are cost and speed. Musk thinks that his company’s retrofitting of the materials and the actual tunneling process will be able to speed up normal tunneling speed by 15 times; currently, it takes about a year to tunnel a mile, according to Musk. And vertical integration — including making materials on-site, turning discarded dirt into bricks, and using Tesla electronic motors, can help cut costs.
Musk has also softened some of his criticism of other transportation initiatives. He even acknowledged the hubris of the project — a point of criticism that neighbors and the media have levied a like.
“It sounds like we have all the answers, and this is an immediate panacea everyone can jump on, and problem solved,” Musk said. “But we’re obviously at the early stages here. It’s an early prototype and we’re figuring things out.
But, at the same time, Musk is dead set on killing traffic. And he claims the Boring Company solution is the best one out there.
“In the 16 years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, traffic has varied between horrifying and excruciating,” Musk said. “What’s important is that there is a path, finally, to alleviating traffic congestion in cities. If what we’re saying is true, and we think it is, then there is finally a solution to traffic.”
Here’s hoping, Elon. Here’s hoping bureaucracy, red tape, and pesky things like neighborhood input and impact studies, don’t get in the way of the quest to end traffic. For the sake of your commute and for mine.