Whatever you think of Elon Musk and however you choose to describe him “boring” surely isn’t one of them. Yet, ‘The Boring Company‘ is the name of one of his latest ventures which is on a mission to build a 3D network of tunnels beneath cities in order to alleviate congestion.
Crazy idea from a delusional billionaire or visionary picture of a novel solution to a significant problem?
Even though some are sceptical he is serious, I totally get it. Here’s why.
Perhaps I am biased towards this particular project as I studied Civil Engineering and learnt a fair bit about tunnelling during my degree. Nearly 20 years ago I learnt about amazing modern day tunnelling machines that could tunnel forwards then quickly reinforce behind themselves using a substance known as shotcrete – kind of like blasting a form of heavy duty super sticky, quick drying porridge at the wall which sets fast and keeps everything in place.
The trouble being that to my, admittedly still fairly untrained eye, it was far too cumbersome and far too slow. Indeed that pace of progress, of willingness to change is what made me leave civils in the first place.
Musk puts it well when he joking says their target is to beat Gary the snail from SpongeBob Squarepants which is 14 times faster than current tunnel boring machines.
The pace of change in heavy industrial civil engineering is frankly pretty snail like and even though things have no doubt improved lots over the years it’s a sector that has been stuck in incrementalism and evolution for a long time.
That of course means it’s a sector ripe for disruption and one that is about to face a revolution through technology.
To bring that about requires an approx ten fold improvement to the solution – an order of magnitude change and it’s one that is classic Musk.
You can (and I’d recommend that you do) watch him elegantly explain his ever logical thinking as he discusses how to bring about that kind of change in the fabulous TED interview with Chris Anderson.
In summary though, by thinking about the problem from first principles and re-looking at what is actually required, the complexity of the problem and simplicity of the solution become remarkably clear.
Problem 1 – The streets are heavily congested
It’s a problem that’s not going to get any better the more we start to rely on shared vehicle ownership and less on public transport.
Streets are a 2D network. Instead of trying to find more space on the same layer. Build a new layer. Hence, build a 3D tunnel network.
Problem 2 – Tunnelling is exorbitantly expensive.
Bring about an order of magnitude improvement in tunnel boring costs and suddenly the economics become much more attractive. Great! How?
- Tunnel costs scale with surface area.
A normal car tunnel has to be 26-28 ft in diameter – change the purpose of the tunnel so it’s not for a car to be driven through it is for a “skate” which might require less surrounding access. This reduces required diameter to 12 ft. OK, just ignore the immense health and safety challenge this proposes for a second.
That cuts diameter by a factor of 2 and cross sectional area by factor of 4 so with creative licence let’s say that’s a half order of magnitude improvement.
- Boring is slow.
Most tunnelling machines of today are forced to cut then stop to reinforce.
Simply build a machine that does not need to stop and carries out both tasks simultaneously.
A machine that tunnels and reinforces at the same time gives you a factor of 2 improvement.
- Improve efficiency.
Boring machines do not operate anywhere near their power or thermal limit.
Simply find a way to safely jack up the power and you get another factor of 2 improvement. This might even reach 4 or 5.
Combine these and roughy you get a ten fold improvement.
Of course, there is still a significant challenge in achieving the how in each of these challenges and that’s where many engineering minds get stuck and the classic rhetoric starts to be heard.
“It’s too hard.”
“It’s never been done.”
“It can’t be done.”
yadda yadda yadda
And you know what? I agree with them – this scale of challenge is enormous. It has never been done before. But of course the hard bit is not actually executing the how, its working out the goal, re-looking at the problem from a different perspective and crafting a clear set of steps to achieve the audacious goal you set yourself.
The Boring Company is a great example of a ten fold improvement on a legacy solution and one that I think has more than a fighting chance of succeeding.
Oh and of course if you crack the challenge of cost effectively boring under the world most populated cities but don’t solve the health and safety issue of sending cars down the tunnels – just send your Hyperloop down instead. Audacious goals, hedged.
My monies on Elon and the team beating Gary the snail.