The Boring Company is turning out to be anything but, as Elon Musk’s side project to bore transportation tunnels under the world’s cities has found its first customer in the Chicago Transit Authority. The Boring Company announced a project with the CTA to develop a network of tunnels connecting Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and downtown Chicago.
The new route, dubbed the Chicago Express Loop, would get passengers downtown from O’Hare in just 12 minutes for around $20–25. That’s half the price of a cab and in much less time. (But it’s $15–20 more than the $5 it costs to go from downtown Chicago to O’Hare on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line “L” in ~37 minutes.) The proposed route is yet to be confirmed, but it runs under existing roads as a workaround to getting permission for each and every segment, as would be required for a more direct route.
A source familiar with the deal shared with the Chicago Tribune that, “The Chicago system is expected to be able to handle nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds to two minutes, city officials said.” For comparison, CityLab notes that is “about 60 percent of the Blue Line’s current, mostly-under-capacity average hourly ridership.” In other words, the Musk solution would move people less efficiently, but the tradeoff between demand and capacity is something that would presumably get worked out via pricing adjustments over time as needed.
Details about the project are still largely being firmed up, but at a high level, The Boring Company estimates that the project will cost less than $1 billion. According to the Chicago Tribune, The Boring Company will pay for the entire project, including the construction of a new station at O’Hare and the completion of the partially built Block 37 “superstation.”
In exchange, The Boring Company would keep the revenue generated by the new system, including transit fees, advertising monies, and any in-vehicles sales. Long-term ownership of the new tunnels has not been determined, but city administrators are planning to seek a long-term lease to The Boring Company, according to a source that the Chicago Tribune spoke with.
The new partnership speaks to polymath Elon Musk’s credibility in business segments far outside his demonstrated competencies of internet technologies, electric vehicles, solar energy, energy storage, and rocketry, to name a few.
“We’re taking a bet on a guy who doesn’t like to fail — and his resources. There are a bunch of Teslas on the road. He put SpaceX together. He’s proven something,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shared. “The risk — with no financial risk — is I’m betting on a guy who has proven in space, auto and now a tunnel, that he can innovate and create something of the future. Given his track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, ‘This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.’ That’s what we’re doing.”
The new venture is admittedly not a moonshot in that the core technology of autonomous electric vehicles are a logical extension of much of the work Musk has done at Tesla. The tunnels are the new variable in this project, which Elon and team have only a handful of months of experience with. Knowing Elon’s history, his inexperience with what the industry says is impossible is likely the very thing that has allowed him to challenge the status quo with this project.
The Boring Company estimates that it will be able to build the new tunnels 14 times faster than previous projects. With The Boring Company taking on the vast majority, if not all, of the financial risk with the project, it’s almost a zero-sum game for the CTA. Time will tell how the gamble pays out but for now, it looks as though Elon and team at The Boring Company are taking on a project that is anything but boring. This project could single-handedly define how and if the company is able to successfully reach the next level and take flight in the real world.
Editor’s note: CityLab highlights a few more interesting points about this project. The first is that the price is obscenely low. If achieved as pitched it comes to $55.5 million per mile, which is “far and away, the cheapest construction cost for any subterranean transit line in the U.S.” Here’s a breakdown of other US transit tunnel projects:
Musk has shown that his approach to new businesses has led to dramatically lower rocket and battery costs. This could be another case where he finds enough unusual solutions to obscenely cut costs.
However, there’s also still skepticism about the potential here, and Musk does also have a track record of missing deadlines, which includes delays hitting the financial targets he had in mind. (Note that the $35K Tesla Model 3 we were supposed to have at the end of 2017 now might not arrive till 2019, as just one example of more than a few.)
“Shorter construction time would translate into fewer labor costs, one of the main reasons that building subways in the U.S. is ludicrously expensive, especially when compared to other countries,” CityLab writes. If you follow Tesla closely, I assume you had some kind of nervous reaction to those first three words — “shorter construction time.” Does The Boring Company really have an approach that will lead to significantly shorter construction? Or is overoptimism at play again here?
Regarding that CityLab table above, here’s a little more context: “This table gives a sense of how extraordinary Musk’s project would be on a cost basis—and how improbable. Experts have expressed skepticism about whether Musk could make a serious breakthrough in boring technology. ‘His machines that build tunnels look pretty standard,’ Herbert Einstein, a professor of engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Forbes in April. ‘I’ve not seen anything from him that is different from what other people do except for the smaller diameter. … The smaller you go, the more quickly you can build it and the cheaper. That is certainly the case, but I don’t know if it’s massively lower.'” Regulatory hurdles are also often a cause of higher costs, and CityLab highlights that The Boring Company is still wrestling with those for a smaller, simpler project in LA. Also, there’s this:
“Plus, none of the Boring Company’s technology is remotely proven. A video released by the company in July 2017 of a ‘car skate’ in action showed a Tesla being lowered underground on what essentially looked like a giant elevator that one might find in an Apple store. They haven’t been tested for public use. And while a 16-person autonomous vehicle isn’t a novel concept, ‘the particular model Boring envisions—based on a modified Tesla Model X car chassis—still has to be built on a large scale,’ Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne of the Chicago Tribune reported.”
Hmm, again, Elon Musk’s tech isn’t “remotely proven” and he’s putting out super optimistic costs based on an aggressive timeline. Anyone who has read CleanTechnica for 1–10 years knows that I am typically as optimistic as Musk about his targets, sometimes even more so. I’m not particularly tempted to take a leap of faith on this one. (Not that anyone is asking me to.) I see too many warning signs about the pitch.
That said, Musk does have a way of making stuff happen, and it seems Rahm Emanuel wants to do what he can to make this work. I’m sure he’ll score a lot of political points for a success here. Perhaps he’s even considering a presidential run. If he can make a handful of regulatory hurdles go away for The Boring Company, he’d surely get Musk singing his praises here or there while making it much easier for the company to reach its temporal and cost targets.
But that still leaves one more issue: Is there a good underlying purpose and demand for this project? As noted higher up, the L Line covers the same route in ~37 minutes for a cost of $5. How many people per day will pay an extra $20 to get there ~25 minutes faster? Let’s turn to CityLab for one more quote: “Debatable too are the merits of this particular project for airport-bound Chicagoans—the Blue Line works pretty darn well, and airport express lines in other cities, appealing mostly for business travelers, haven’t panned out so well. In Toronto, where the subway system doesn’t reach the international airport, a brand-new airport express line has fallen seriously short of ridership expectations, even with its one-way fare of $12.35.” Hmm, what could go wrong?
Images courtesy: The Boring Company