Tonight, The Boring Company took the wraps off of its demonstration tunnel in Hawthorne, California. The tunnel starts in the vicinity of the SpaceX parking lot, which was usurped for The Boring Company to start playing with its less than exciting technology.
The big reveal tonight was not a revision to the mission of The Boring Company, as that has not changed much since its coming out event a few months back. This event was about the first demonstration tunnel that takes the concept up to full scale, working elevators and all. The event let the first non-employee humans get into a Tesla and have a run through the tunnel, spending some time with the new tech they have developed.
On-Vehicle Pop-Out Wheels
At the unveiling of the new demonstration tunnel, The Boring Company revealed that it has ditched the stand-alone electric skates for a set of on-vehicle guides that pop out to the side of the vehicle when it’s time to enter the tunnel. This simplifies the design and is another way for the company to compel the masses to convert to electric vehicles. Why build a completely separate electric vehicle skate system if we can simply build a system that only lets autonomous electric vehicles take advantage of it?
Tesla’s Elon’s mission of accelerating the transition to sustainable electric transportation and clean energy while at the same time eliminating the need to build an entirely new system that works around gas and diesel vehicles. Simplifying the solution also eliminates what would otherwise be a piece of infrastructure that could fail and replaces it with a user-owned vehicle that does not have to be maintained by The Boring Company.
These vehicles can’t just be any car off the street, as we said — they must be electric vehicles and they must be fully autonomous. The electric vehicle requirement is simply because of the ventilation requirements that would otherwise be needed. If they were to allow gas and diesel vehicles into the tunnels, they would have to add a significant amount of ventilation infrastructure that would add to the cost and reduce the usable diameter of the tunnel significantly. In short, allowing only electric vehicles cuts down on the cost of building and operating the tunnels.
The vehicles must also be autonomous, which, at this point, is a very fluid definition. No fully autonomous vehicles exist today, so the reason for this requirement is a bit murky, but the ability to have a car capable of driving itself while under the control of the tunnel system makes the requirement seem a bit more logical. There is clearly more work needed in this area to define the communication protocol used, the level of autonomy, etc.
Priority Given To Pedestrians & Cyclists
Interestingly, Elon shared at the event that the new tunnel system would give priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Early mockups from the company show larger pods that would serve as something more like a city bus, hauling a dozen or so passengers to their destination. Elon shared tonight that the system would indeed have its own vehicles that these passengers could use.
It is exciting that priority would be given to higher density, more efficient users of the system vs just charging owners of private vehicles a higher fee, though that is still likely going to be the reality of the situation, based on the economics of the system.
Modular, Pre-Fabricated Elevators
As the early video shared, private passenger vehicles would travel to pre-defined elevator locations that would bring vehicles from below to the surface and from the surface down to the tunnel system. Thinking back to the many city infrastructure projects that leave city streets and blocks out of commission for weeks, months, and years, Elon and the team took a different approach.
The elevators used to get in and out of the tunnel system will be pre-fabricated offsite so that all that is required in terms of on-site construction is to dig a hole, lower the pre-fab elevator into position and bolt the pieces together. That’s a beautifully thought out piece of a much larger puzzle that will help cities, like Chicago, to get on board with The Boring Company’s solution knowing that they have really thought about the typical problems and solved many of them ahead of time.
That’s not to say that there won’t be issues, but it speaks to the intention that has already been put into the system (and they’re just getting started).
A New & Improved Tunnel-Boring Machine
The Boring Company started digging holes with its first boring machine, which it dubbed Godot. The team very quickly identified a number of ways they felt they could improve the speed of the boring itself and set a goal of beating Gary. Gary, it turns out, is a snail, and while snails travel slow compared to other things up here on the surface, they are speed demons compared to boring machines, which take months and a billion or two billion dollars to bore a single mile of underground tunnel.
Snails travel at 14× the speed of the average tunnel boring machine, so the the team felt like it was fitting to try to reach the speed of a snail for starters. That would be a feat in and of itself and would serve to lower the cost of tunnel boring significantly. Unfortunately, The Boring Company team found out the hard way that snails apparently don’t live that long, and they are currently playing host to Gary the 6th.
The team has finally taken those learnings and started work on the next-generation tunnel boring machine (TBM), which it calls Linestorm. Linestorm’s mission is to explore the potential to increase the speed of the tunnel boring process by implementing some of the possible improvements the team identified through boring the first demo tunnel with Godot.
First off, Linestorm was built as a fully electric tunnel boring machine from the ground up, which stands in stark contrast to traditional diesel boring machines. Eliminating the combustion means there is no need to fill up throughout the day and, more importantly, drastically reduces the amount of ventilation equipment and infrastructure required to allow humans to work in the tunnel alongside the boring machines.
The second requirement is that they are increasing the power of the TBM. Their initial analysis showed that the power output could be tripled with little more than an upgrade to the cooling system. That allows the machine to dig farther, faster, which is ultimately the whole objective.
Elon shared that for every work hour, only 10 minutes is actually spent boring. The rest of the time is spent reinforcing the newly exposed earth and other logistical tasks. The Boring Company is skirting this altogether by working on a process that would automatically reinforce the walls of the tunnel while they bore. This obviously enables boring to go faster, but also allows the team to use the dirt that was just dug out to produce the reinforcement for the walls. After all, 70% of the material that goes into those very same wall reinforcements is dirt, just like what they’re digging out of the ground.
The next generation of boring machines will also be autonomous. Per The Boring Company, “While smaller-diameter tunneling machines are automated, larger ones currently require multiple human operators. By automating the larger TBMs, both safety and efficiency are increased.”
Much like Tesla did for electric vehicles and SpaceX continues to do for rockets, The Boring Company aims to spur renewed interest in tunnel boring in the United States. The fact that we are talking about it here speaks to the draw Elon Musk has and his ability to get people excited about something we couldn’t have cared less about just a few years prior. Through this new interest, Elon hopes to rustle up some research and development funds for tunneling in the United States as a means for spurring future innovations in the space.
The Boring Company event has sparked the imagination of a new generation, with visuals of progress to date and the entertaining vision-casting of its founder Elon Musk. Is he biting off more than he can chew or is The Boring Company just the next logical step towards his ultimate vision of fully electrified (traffic-free) transportation for everyone? Time will tell.
For now, check out the first half of this video walkthrough of some of the pre-event festivities at The Boring Company demo tunnel event.
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