Elon Musk unveils Loop high-speed transport tunnel prototype
the boring company loop prototype
A Tesla electric car in the prototype tunnel

Elon Musk unveils Loop high-speed transport tunnel prototype

Elon Musk’s personal mission to tackle LA’s traffic congestion took a significant step forward last night as a prototype tunnel was presented with characteristic fanfare.

The initial Test Tunnel, located in Hawthorne, California, is being used for the research and development of The Boring Company’s tunnelling and public transportation systems.

Attendees were given the opportunity to travel along the mile-long section of tunnel in Tesla cars modified with retractable runners, which keep the vehicles on course.

Eventually, any fully autonomous electric vehicle could be fitted with the attachments, and use the tunnels.

Diamond in the rough?

While the event’s attendees only reached speeds of around 50mph, Elon Musk promises that such vehicles will one day be able to travel at up to 150mph. “At that speed, it will feel like teleporting within a city,” he said.

Still, after exiting the tunnel at the end of the prototype section, the drive through LA traffic back to the starting point took around twice as long as taking the tunnel.

Should The Boring Company’s vision be realised, LA, and other cities, could one day see a network of tunnels fed by access elevators with footprints no greater than a parking space.

Such as network wouldn’t just be for those with autonomous, electric vehicles. Elon Musk tweeted:

All Boring Loops will include continuously circulating cars dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists.

Despite the bright lights and hype, the project is still in its early stages. The Boring Company has few tunnels underway, not least due to the regulatory and planning problems that ensnare such schemes, and technology hurdles remain.

Those that undertook the demo ride reported a bumpy, white knuckle experience. Elon Musk explained at the event that this was due to problems with a paving machine, and that the surface would eventually be “smooth as glass”.

Internet of Business says

The greatest promise in last night’s reveal probably lies behind the scenes, in the boring technology that gave Elon Musk’s company its name.

Tunnels are traditionally extremely expensive to dig, sometimes costing as much as $1 billion per mile. The test tunnel was reportedly built for around $10 million.

This was partly due to a reduction in tunnel diameter. The current standard for a one-lane tunnel is approximately 28 feet. By using electric autonomous vehicles with alignment wheels, the diameter can be reduced to less than 14 feet, and tunnelling costs cut by three to four times.

Secondly, tunnel boring machines are incredibly slow. The Boring Company hopes to produce machines that can go for longer, while reinforcing the tunnel at the same time – all with less human supervision – thereby transforming technology that has been stagnant for decades.

Many automotive and aerospace companies are looking to the skies for the future of urban transportation. The Boring Company claims that Loop tunnels have several advantages over air or road travel:

  • There is no practical limit to how many layers of tunnels can be built, so any level of traffic can be addressed
  • Tunnels are weatherproof
  • Tunnel construction and operation are silent and invisible to anyone on the surface
  • Tunnels don’t divide communities with lanes and barriers

It’s looking increasingly like the technology and economics could reach the necessary thresholds to make large-scale Loop projects viable in the next few years. Yet, given the regulatory obstacles encountered so far, The Boring Company may face a tougher grind above ground in government offices than in the slow boring of tunnels below.

Given their way, the company’s Loop technology could one day give rise to a hyperloop revolution, granting speeds of over 600 miles per hour in autonomous, electricity-powered capsules, inside low-pressure tunnels.