Elon Musk is barely making any headway with his tunnel boring company

Dusseldorf The power went out often, the internet connection was bumpy, and there wasn’t enough water to mix concrete because of the lack of hoses. To make matters worse, a sandstorm swept over the construction site on Friday: The list of problems was long that the competitors in Las Vegas had to contend with in the “Not-a-Boring Competition” by Boring, Elon Musk’s tunneling company .

The final was contested by the team from the Technical University of Munich and the “Swissloop Tunneling” team from the ETH Zurich. The task was to drill a 30 meter long tunnel as quickly and precisely as possible. In the end, the Munich team won: “We were very well prepared,” explained Max Herbst, one of the project managers at TUM Boring.

The disqualified teams were frustrated: “We have been waiting for the compressor since Monday, the Boring Company kept holding us up,” annoyed Daniel Klassen, who is responsible for the drive technology of the “Dirt Torpedo” from the DHBW, in the ” Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung “. “And then we will be punished for not being able to test the pneumatics.”

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All participants were also disappointed because Elon Musk did not show up. It is his great vision to relieve traffic through an underground road system. To this end, he founded Boring in 2018. The company’s name is a play on words – in English, “boring” means both “boring” and “drilling”. The goal: to build tunnels faster and more cost-effectively.

Unlike the vehicles from Tesla or the rockets from SpaceX, the tunnel projects have so far been selling rather sluggishly. Just months ago, Boring was listing projects for Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore – but they have now disappeared from the website. After all: In Florida, Boring wants to drill a tunnel from Fort Lauderdale to the beach.

Higher drilling speed is not everything

“The competition is basically a positive thing,” says Roland Leucker, Managing Director of the Study Society for Tunnels and Transport Systems (Stuva). “He inspires young people for technology.” But the specifications for the competition astonish the engineer: three meters an hour with a half-meter diameter? Current tunnel boring machines can manage half as much, depending on the nature of the earth – “and a train can fit in there,” says Leucker. “Musk pretends the tech isn’t there already. What he plans to do with Boring is already available in Germany. “

The Boring Company

Elon Musk’s company wants to build tunnels faster and cheaper.

(Photo: The Boring Company)

A higher drilling speed only helps to a limited extent in construction projects. The time wasters are the permits. According to Leucker, the planning phase for larger tunnels can take up to 20 years, while the actual construction only takes five years. In many cases, the lawsuits and protests, especially from local residents, delayed the projects. “Musk is absolutely right to bring traffic underground,” says Leucker, “but we also have to convince the population of the advantages.”

The drilling costs in tunnel projects only make up a fraction of the total costs. Buying the land, designing the project and building stations devours the most money. An extension of the Los Angeles subway by four kilometers cost a total of 3.6 billion dollars – of which the tunnel accounted for 410 million dollars.

According to Musk’s vision, train stations should no longer be necessary in the future. The Boring Company promises that Tesla electric vehicles with autonomous driving technology will roar through the tunnels at up to 200 kilometers per hour.

But so far there is only one completed tunnel to visit: the so-called Las Vegas Convention Center Loop (LVCC). Boring completed a 2.7 kilometer long tunnel in Las Vegas for more than 55 million dollars that connects parts of the exhibition center. However, there are no robot cars driving there. Chauffeurs have to carefully maneuver the Teslas through the narrow tunnels. The prescribed maximum speed is 56 kilometers per hour, in front of the stops only 16 km / h.

Bureaucracy is holding back Elon Musk’s plans

The LVCC is to be part of a Las Vegas loop with a length of 15 miles. A tunnel to Casino Resorts World is currently being built. Other casinos, the airport and the University of Las Vegas could also be connected. However, the approval of the Las Vegas district commission is missing.

Las Vegas is known for the motto “anything goes” (“anything is possible”): building regulations or gambling laws are less strict than in other cities in America. But even there resistance is stirring. Mayor Carolyn Goodman voted against the construction of the LVCC in 2019 – Boring has too little experience, the project is too risky.

Even now there are some concerns with the authorities: What happens in the event of a battery fire in the tunnel? And can the Tesla autopilot even be used in a tunnel? Assistance systems also use radar sensors; According to Toyota, however, they only work to a limited extent in a tunnel. Tesla does without radar sensors in some models, which in turn raises questions about the basic accuracy of the driving systems.

Tunnel boring

So far there is only one finished tunnel to be seen.

(Photo: The Boring Company)

The main problem for Musk’s company: According to the contract with the Las Vegas exhibition, it must be able to transport 4,400 people per hour in order to be paid in full. According to a report by the industry service Techcrunch, the fire regulations and other restrictions only allow 800 people per hour.

The endurance test is due in a few months at the consumer electronics fair CES. Most recently, this only took place digitally due to the corona measures. Under normal circumstances, however, an average of 140,000 people crowd the city.

Boring had already wanted to dig a tunnel from the US capital Washington to Baltimore in the past and also submitted a 500-page environmental study. Boring’s approach to such projects was similar to that of Tesla or SpaceX: Start first – and then get the permits when the time comes.

But this tactic had crashed, reported Pete Rahn, former transport minister of the state of Maryland, opposite “NBC News”. The project required so many federal, state, and county approvals that it didn’t stand a chance. “That was very promising, but they couldn’t handle the bureaucracy.”

More: Elon Musk’s drilling competition: two German teams are favorites