A recently formed civil engineering company, the Boring Company, is planning to further tunneling and tunnel mechanics. The CEO happens to be the hotly debated Elon Musk.

He has been inspired by the challenges of the Los Angeles transport infrastructure and believes that with California famously splayed across the San Andreas Fault, tunnels would survive an earthquake.

However, a journal published by Springer points out that for tunnels to be completely safe from earthquakes, they have to be as deeply embedded in the ground as possible. An excerpt reads:

“Experience shows that underground structures, especially deep ones, are far less vulnerable to earthquakes than superficial ones. The earthquake waves can also be amplified within soft superficial strata. In addition, loose water-saturated soil may lose its strength (so-called liquefaction), and this can lead to landslides or failure of foundations and retaining walls.”

Source: The Boring Company

So going deeper is better. And aside from the already established underground subway system, the big question is what else we could be routed underground?

Elon Musk is determined that Los Angeles’ traffic congestion would be solved with tunnels. Talking on Joe Rogan’s podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, Musk says:

“I’ve lived in LA for sixteen years and the traffic has always been terrible. I don’t see any other ideas for improving the situation. So, we are going to build a tunnel. And, maybe it will be successful but maybe it won’t.”

The probability of success has not stopped Musk from testing how useful his underground tunnels might be. The Boring Company recently suggested that they could make access to iconic venues much more accessible than they already are. People who are going to stadiums to watch sport or their favorite musician perform are usually in a bit of traffic outside of the venue.

The Boring Company published a proposed tunnel construction from Los Feliz, East Hollywood to Dodger Stadium in the City of Los Angeles.

Musk reiterated on the podcast that the tunnels are earthquake-proof, whereas above-ground roads can experience a high level of damage during an earthquake.

“Tunnels are very safe in earthquakes. Earthquakes are essentially a surface phenomenon. It’s like waves on the ocean. So, if there’s a storm, you want to be in a submarine. The way a tunnel is constructed - it’s constructed out of these interlocking segments, kind of like a snake. It’s sort of like a snake exoskeleton with double seals.

Trelleborg Infrastructure has uploaded a video, on YouTube, of how robust of an immersed tunnel can be. It is created with Gina gaskets and Omega seals. In the video, an earthquake is simulated displaying how pliable an immersed tunnel is. It also shows that the tunnel retains its structural integrity:

This corroborates what Musk was saying, when he told Rogan:

“And so, even when the ground moves, the tunnel is actually able to shift along with the ground - like an underground snake. And, it doesn’t crack or break, and it’s extremely unlikely that both seals would be broken. And, it’s capable of taking five atmospheres of pressure.  It’s water-proof, methane-proof, or gas proof of any kind. It meets all California seismic requirements.”



Musk’s tunneling ideas have been met with some skepticism and with the need for an environmental impact analysis the project is likely to be delayed for quite some time.

Joshua Schank, the leader of Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation talking to Curbed Los Angeles said:

“Technology doesn’t take precedence over the environmental process. You can have the fastest tunneling machines and the greatest mode of transport, but none of that affects the political or environmental process.”

Nonetheless, assuming Musk’s underground tunnels are given the green light, he may be missing the thumbs up from property owners across California. The associate director of UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies, talking to Curbed LA said:

“The best way to do this would be to negotiate with the state of California and build it under the freeway system. But those roads are built for 65mph, not more than 100, and you’re going to need to take wider turns. Inevitably it’ll go under private property and all it takes is one person’s refusal before you have to re-engineer everything.”

Musk may be banking on the fact that the science is there, together with the fact that the tunnels may just solve an oncoming congestion crisis.

Furthermore, Musk believes that transport systems should consider a three-dimensional approach. He said:

“If you can go 3D on your transport system, then you can solve all traffic. You can either go 3D up with a flying car, or 3D down with tunnels. You can have as many tunnel levels as you want. You can arbitrarily relieve any traffic.”

Musk concludes that if you go down deep enough you could create 100 tunnels, thus solving a congestion issue on the surface. Whether or not the Boring Company will be given clearance to go ahead and create what they are envisioning is a moot point, but the fact that engineers are dreaming about the future is positive.


Works Cited

“Earthquake Effects on Tunnels.” SpringerLink, Springer, link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/3-540-28500-8_18.

“Joe Rogan Experience #1169 - Elon Musk.” YouTube, 7 Sept. 2018, youtu.be/ycPr5-27vSI.

Tinoco, Matt. “5 Reasons Why Experts Are so Skeptical of Elon Musk's Solution for LA Traffic.” Curbed LA, Curbed LA, 18 Dec. 2017, la.curbed.com/2017/12/18/16748436/elon-musk-tunnels-los-angeles-criticism-explained.

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