May 09 2023

Is The Boring Company Useful?

Elon Musk has a complicated legacy. Most people I encounter who bother to express an opinion tend to be either a fan or hater. I am neither. He’s a complicated and flawed person who has accomplished some interesting things, but also has had some epic failures. People like a clean narrative, however, so it’s tempting to portray him as either all good or all bad, or at least minimize the parts that don’t align with your narrative. I find it interesting, for example, that many people who don’t like Musk feel compelled to take away his genuine accomplishments, like SpaceX. The common criticisms I hear are that Musk did not engineer the rockets (of course he didn’t), or that he didn’t build SpaceX, he bought it. The first claim is irrelevant and the second is simply wrong. SpaceX exists because of Musk, because of his dedication to building that company and his willingness to sink lots of his own money into a string of failures until it worked. You have to give the devil his due. Similarly, his successes do not excuse his personal failures, unsavory business practices, unfortunate politics, or epic failures like Twitter.

One Musk venture, The Boring Company, is itself complicated to assess. I’m still not sure if this is going to turn out to be another SpaceX or an expensive dead end of false hype. It’s not looking good so far, but neither did SpaceX during its string of crashed rockets. l

The stripped-down idea is not a bad one – develop the technology for digging underground tunnels to make the process faster and cheaper. If you can make tunnel-digging fast and cheap enough, it changes the calculus and could open up new applications. Faster and cheaper is always nice. At the very least this would be good for existing applications for underground reinforced tunnels. But Musk wants this technology to become “disruptive”. He certainly has not achieved that. But let’s step back and just think about potential applications for underground tunnels in general.

The big advantage of tunnels is that they can bypass obstacles. In a city, for example, you can dig a tunnel under the streets and buildings to bypass traffic and physical obstacles to zip from one end of the city to the other. This is the idea of a subway system, and it works. You can also build tunnels for auto traffic, either to go under a river (instead of a bridge), or again under a congested city. Boston’s Big Dig is an example of using tunneling to redesign a city’s flow of traffic.

Futuristic traffic examples include using tunneling to build a maglev train system. Because they are underground the trains could potentially travel faster without worrying about obstacles, can pass under populated areas without disrupting traffic, and is not bothered by the weather (such as snow on the tracks). This is basically a long-distance subway system.   Such a system could also be built not for trains but for individual cars, carrying 4-8 passengers each, all zipping along the tracks to their destination. This was the vision that Musk originally sold. An even higher-tech system could partially evacuate the tunnels to allow for greater traveling speeds and efficiency (because of reduced air resistance). This would only be worth it for a truly long distance train system, but could theoretically achieve speeds equal to modern jet aircraft.

In addition to passengers, such a system could be used to transport goods. Imagine a system where the standard cargo holders are loaded onto a rail car which will then transport them to their destination where they are put onto another truck to go to their final destination.

We can also imagine some non-transport applications for cheap and fast tunnels. As we are contemplating, for example, significantly expanding the electrical grid, there would be an advantage to being able to run hundreds of miles of high-capacity high voltage cables underground. Overhead lines are a potential hazard, they are expensive to maintain, they are susceptible to weather causing power outages, and they are unsightly. Such utility tunnels could also be used to run water and gas pipelines (hopefully hydrogen gas), and even double to transport goods. Tunnels can also be useful for some mining projects. There are also likely some industrial uses I am not thinking of.

If, therefore, The Boring Company achieved its technological goal of significantly reducing the cost per mile of digging a reinforced tunnel, at the promised speed of 7 miles per day, perhaps we could take another look the option of using tunnels for many applications. There is no question that the company has not achieved this goal. But how are they doing? Well, it’s complicated. It’s not quite blowing up and crashing ships, but the goals are more difficult than I think Musk imagined.

Here is a good summary of the issues. First, Musk’s initial application for The Boring Company was to build city loops – and underground tunnel system to get around cities (basically an alternative to subways). He envisioned that the tunnels would be full of Teslas driven by AI at high speeds. The first mini-loop to be up and running is in Vegas, with cars driven by humans at low speeds (30 mph) and not free from the problems of traffic congestion. There are plans to expand this system to a total of 65 miles and 69 stations. This is hardly the hyperloop of the future. It seems to be at best a novelty, something perhaps appropriate for Vegas, but it does not look like a viable mass transit system.

Industry critics also point out that even though the company may have made some incremental advances in digging technology, “property acquisition, permitting and engineering work, and the sheer complexity of digging through rock or soil” remain unaddressed factors.

So it seems that The Boring Company has not achieved Musk’s original vision. He may have improved upon digging equipment, but has not crossed over the line into making it a disruptive technology. But the company can dig actual working tunnels. The current specific application of these tunnels appears to be a bust, but that does not mean the underlying technology is useless. This gets to the difficulty of predicting future technology. With SpaceX all Musk had to do was incrementally reduce the cost of getting stuff into low Earth orbit, and there would be a market for that. He did that and more with his reusable rockets. For The Boring Company the task is harder – he needs a “killer app” – what are these tunnels going to be used for? So far, the applications seems to be where he has failed.

Again we seem to be at a place where a lot will depend on how much time, effort, and money Musk is willing to sink into this company before it becomes sustainable. Any outcome, at this point, is plausible. Musk may lose interest and abandon the project. The Boring Company may be sold off or simply function as a regular tunneling company without ever achieving disruptive status. Or, Musk (or someone else) could keep pushing, iterating the technology and one day finding that killer app which will change the world. Perhaps they will get a contract to build service tunnels for an expanded grid. One big successful contract could change the fate of this company and the future of this technology.  Or it could die on the vine.

Either future is plausible.


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