I am in a Tesla Model X, behind a storefront Elon Musk plans to use to sell bricks. The bricks will come from dirt excavated from tunnels like the one I am about to enter. This is O’Leary Station. The Model X, which is playing Faith No More’s “Epic,” pulls up to a place about the size of two standard parking spots and stops. People dressed entirely in black — black broken only by the white logo of The Boring Company — surround the car. And they get taller as the car starts to sink.
From the elevator mechanism, I can see a metal staircase as we continue to descend. The walls have been left off so we can see the raw metal. We arrive at the bottom. The tunnel mouth is outlined by red lights, which continue like a spine across the top of the tunnel. A few yards in, they are replaced by blue lights.
The red lights turn yellow. Then green. Our driver hits the accelerator.
The shtick of the Boring Company is that it’s tunnel-boring, but cheaper and faster and with Elon Musk. Godot, like all of The Boring Company’s drills, is 14 feet in diameter; it was previously used for digging a sewer in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Reducing the diameter of a transit tunnel to 14 feet from the current single-lane standard of about 28 feet is supposed to speed digging while cutting costs, at least according to The Boring Company’s FAQ.) It’s a large metal cylinder from the side — but facing it head on, you discover the cylinder is filled with plenty of wires and an alluring panel of levers and dials. And, of course, a bit of metal that looks rather like an oversized corkscrew.
The Boring Company didn’t build Godot. Rather, the innovations the Boring Company says it’s bringing are to the business of tunneling itself: having the tunnel boring machines run electric instead of on diesel fuel; tripling the tunnel boring machine’s power; automating the machine so it doesn’t rely on human operators; and allowing it to operate continuously. “A snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil tunnel boring machine,” the company’s website reads. ”Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race.”
Godot is already outdated; there’s another machine, Line-storm (“The road is forlorn all day”) that’s better and, the company hopes, faster. (The Boring Company will build its own machine, Prufrock, as a third.) See, Godot operates in the industry-standard way: it bores for a while, then stops so that the concrete segments that line the tunnel can be manually placed. Line-storm, the second boring machine, has an automated process for placing the concrete. Operators use an Xbox controller to, well, control it.
Steve Davis, a SpaceX engineer who is now the Boring Company’s president, said that “greater than five and less than 20” cities or stakeholders contact the Boring Company weekly about using its tunnel technology for utility or water lines. Though that’s a bit more… mundane… than fixing traffic, those lines of business seem to have interested The Boring Company enough that it’s begun talking about using its tunnel technology for more than just transportation.
“This is better than Disneyland,” another reporter says excitedly as we begin to pick up speed. (I have not been to Disneyland, but this seems like a scathing indictment.) Our top speed is 40 miles per hour, though as we get to the end of the tunnel we slow to 25; the entire trip through the 1.14 mile tunnel takes two minutes and change.
The ride is bumpy — there were some “issues with the paving machine not paving smoothly,” Elon Musk, the founder and principal investor, says later at a press conference. “In the future, you can be sure it will be absolutely smooth.”
Musk describes his own first trip through the tunnel as “epic.” He continued, “For me, it was a eureka moment. This thing is gonna damn well work.”
In any event, it’s definitely a tunnel. The colored lights put me in mind of the Chicago O’Hare tunnel, or a very budget Olafur Eliasson display. Besides the blue light, there isn’t much to see. It does seem strange, though, that we’re taking this ride in a Model X — because until this evening, there were going to be “autonomous electric skates” that zip passengers around at 120 to 150 miles per hour. These skates were supposed to carry eight to 16 people in a pod or a single car. Unlike with a more conventional subway, these skates don’t stop between where a person gets on and where they might get off; every skate runs express to one’s final destination.
Anyway, the skates have been canceled. “The car is the skate,” Musk says.
A set of wheels facing sideways will be attached to autonomous electric vehicles — like the Model X I was in, though Musk says any autonomous electric vehicle will do. (“We used Tesla because I run Tesla,” Musk says.) Meaning: no gas cars! The speed estimates haven’t changed, even with the guide wheels replacing the skates. And some of the system’s vehicles will be dedicated pedestrian transport. The rest will be private. Musk figures the guide wheel sets, which align the car with the walls of the tunnel, will cost $200 to $300. He showed an animation of the tracking wheels folding under the car and disappearing; the current tracking wheels do not seem to do this. At least, I did not personally see them disappear.
The point is to create a highway underground, a high-speed set of arteries that allow drivers to join the very fast flow of traffic and then pull off at their destination. The elevators (or spiral ramps or straight ramps, Musk isn’t picky) let the drivers join the subterranean traffic river.
Personal rapid transit is subject to the same problems as every other kind. If the system is underused, it’ll take you immediately where you need to go, says Juan Matute, the deputy director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. But if people find it truly useful, bottlenecks will be created: long lines of cars waiting to get on, just like on the interstate. “It could choke on its success or just not be successful,” Matute says. “Either way it’s unlikely there will be significant changes to existing traffic congestion.”
Musk doesn’t agree. “I do think induced demand is a bit of a red herring,” he says. “Even if traffic was perfect in LA, not everyone would move here. That’s not the only reason people aren’t in LA — or New York or DC or whatever the case may be. This is very important. No matter how much demand there is, you can satisfy it with a network of 3D tunnels.”
The elevators are about the size of two parking spaces; Musk figures you can put them all over the place, preventing traffic jams by having fewer choke points. And since you can tunnel in a fairly unlimited way, you can stack the tunnels to reduce traffic until you’ve run out of cars. At least, in theory.
Environmental review can take years, especially in a highly-regulated environment like California. The best-case scenario for the review is a timetable of three to four years — assuming no one sues and slows it down further, Curbed reports. Then there are the risks like old oil wells and earthquake faults. There are state laws that govern where and how you can navigate these features, which will likely dictate part of the tunnel route. Once the route is decided, The Boring Company will need permission from the people who own the land it’s boring through. These permissions, called easements, may lock The Boring Company into working pretty much exclusively as a part of a public-private partnership, since it’s much easier for governments to get these permissions. Eminent domain and all.
So far, The Boring Company has announced four projects: a test tunnel in Hawthorne (the one I went through!), one for Dodgers Stadium in LA, one in Chicago, and one in the DC area. Though Musk had expressed interest in pursuing a tunnel on the Westside of LA, the Boring Company backed away from the project after a group of residents and community groups sued.
Then there’s the question of money. Infrastructure is hellaciously expensive. Musk says the company already spent “$40 million-ish.” The one-mile test tunnel I rode in took about a year and a half to complete, and about $10 million, not counting research and development — or, for that matter, equipment. This is still fairly cheap. The Silver Line in Washington cost $300 million per mile; New York’s Second Avenue subway will be more like $2.5 billion per mile, according to The New York Times.
Some money is coming from merchandising; The Boring Company made $1 million by selling hats for $20. So naturally, the company offered a Not-A-Flamethrower for sale next — 20,000 of them at $500 each. Within about 100 hours, the company had raked in about $10 million. (I bought one! It’s fun to fire but most of the time it just sits in the office.)
The company also raised about $113 million in equity in April, with 90 percent coming from Musk and the rest from 31 others. The Hawthorne test tunnel was originally built in the SpaceX parking lot, using SpaceX resources and employees, which irked some SpaceX investors, The Wall Street Journal reported. They were awarded six percent of Boring Company stock for their irritation.
Part of the plan is to sell bricks — after previewing the bricks made from the dirt the tunnel boring machines excavated at The Boring Company’s public meeting in May, there’s now a storefront, which is exactly where O’Leary Station is located. Musk has built a Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail-inspired watchtower with these bricks. It sits by the tunnel mouth in the SpaceX parking lot, and just before the event, a man in Monty Python-esque armor did in fact insult me just outside of it. He did not, to my knowledge, fart in my general direction.
What kind of financing is it going to take to get the whole thing off the ground, a reporter asks at the press event. “At least $1 trillion,” Musk says, mugging like the Austin Powers villain Dr. Evil, pinkie to mouth. “I don’t know. It depends on which city, how long, how big is it going to be, what constraints does the government place on it.” A small system might cost $100 million; a huge system might be a couple billion.
A for-profit company with investors — “We have people hounding us to invest, nonstop,” Musk says — presumably will, you know, make profit. Musk says he’s provided all the funding so far. SpaceX provided a parking lot. (He could view progress at that site from his desk, he says.)
Well, all right. The tunnel I went through only has enough room for one car at a time, though Musk plans to embed it in a larger network. And while Musk denies that the tunnel was part of a secret plan to test out technology for Mars, the question clearly tickles him. “I hope we’re one day building tunnels on Mars,” he says. “That will be a glorious day.”
The public unveiling happens after the press event, and also after my trip through the tunnel. I am back in the same SpaceX parking lot where I picked up my flamethrower, but it’s much nicer this time. For starters, there’s carpeting over the concrete. Also, Godot and Line-storm are on display. Gary the Snail, The Boring Company’s mascot — we are now on Gary Number 6, as snails don’t live very long, Musk says — sits on a throne, or at least his pineapple habitat does. Gary, named for a Spongebob Squarepants pet, symbolizes the speed Musk hopes to achieve with the company. An obliging party staffer takes photographs of people with Gary’s habitat.
Prints of tweets from Musk and The Boring Company hang along the walkway to the restrooms, which are very swank porta-potties with fake flowers next to the sink and everything. I am told the chicken sandwich and chicken fingers are good; I’m a vegetarian, so that’s the best intel I have.
There is a VIP area, hidden by shrubberies, located between the restrooms and one of the boring machines. I am not invited to it because obviously not — but I hear Kendrick Lamar and Diplo are in there. I do lay eyes on Grimes, as well as Maye Musk and Jared Leto. I even make eye contact with Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen, who was also at the last SpaceX event I attended. I hope von Holzhausen starts showing up at non-Musk related-press events, just as a human Easter egg.
There are a lot of people at the party, maybe as many as 500. A significant number of them — definitely more than 50, maybe more than 100 — are standing in line to take a ride through the tunnel just like I did earlier. In this sense, it is exactly like Disneyland.
Casey Neistat and Verge alumnus Sam Sheffer are both hovering near the ramp to the tunnel mouth, along with Ben Sullins, who hosts a YouTube channel called Teslanomics. (He owns a Model 3 and a Model S; he’s also managed to score two Founder’s Series Next Gen Roadsters through Tesla’s referral program, according to CNBC.) Sullins tells me that The Boring Company party is smaller and more low-key than Tesla parties. He’s been following The Boring Company closely, and when Musk speaks at the event, mutters the next beat of the speech under his breath about two sentences before Musk says it out loud.
“I’m excited for the next phase,” Sullins says. “I don’t know of anyone doing anything nearly as innovative.” But he’s critical of Musk’s public behavior as well. Sullins is hoping for more accomplishments from Musk and fewer tweets in 2019. “He can do whatever he wants, but to me, you should want to do better than that.”
After speaking, Musk comes up the ramp, walks through the party and disappears into the VIP area. While following him — I am a journalist, and we tend to follow sources and celebrities much as children follow soccer balls before they learn the game’s rules — I run into Paul Billings, 42, of LA. He’d gotten his invite yesterday, but it wasn’t confirmed until this afternoon, which meant he had to rush back from San Diego. Billings owns a Model S, which he bought two months ago. “How often do you get to go to one of these?” he asks me.
I turn to speak to a tall blonde woman, but as she’s spelling her name for me, an older gentleman cuts me off. “We’re not doing press,” he tells me. I thank them both for their time and head toward the flamethrowers.
Did I mention the section of the party with the flamethrowers? You can either toast a marshmallow for s’mores or pose with one in the photo area. (It’s called a photo booth but there isn’t really a booth per se, likely because it would end up on fire.) Watching people get their photos taken is Haydn Sonnad, 19, founder of Tesloop, a mobility service that uses only Teslas; he is now working on a way to use data from connected cars — like Teslas — to benefit the riders, for instance by scheduling appointments for maintenance. (The company is not affiliated with Tesla.) Sonnad got a Model 3 two months ago, from his investors.
“I’ve always been incredibly bullish about tunnels,” Sonnad tells me. He likes the interoperability of the guide wheels for the cars that travel through the tunnels, he says. But he wonders why full autonomy is needed for the system to work. “I don’t know why you’d need full capability,” he says.
I veer back toward the line of people waiting to go into the tunnel and meet up with Sophie Castellon, 14. She came with her dad — a Model X owner — and he didn’t tell her where they were going at first. “It was pretty rude,” she says. She felt the party was formal and nice, “even with the flamethrowers.” (She had a s’more.) She’s interested in the tunnel because of her first-hand experience with LA traffic, including on the way to this event. “We thought we were gonna be late,” she says.
In front of the Monty Python-inspired tower made from Boring Company bricks, several people in medieval attire are swordfighting, for some reason. A waiter comes by with a tray of sparkling wine and I snag a glass. Whether or not the tunnel system will work to cure LA’s traffic, I couldn’t possibly say. Nice party, though.