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Could Elon Musk’s Underground Road System Really Work?

SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk has announced a futuristic vision of transportation involving underground roadway systems beneath bustling cities such as Los Angeles. But how feasible is it?

Musk’s futuristic tunnel system is ambitious and innovative.

The venture that will make Elon Musk’s future vision of transportation happen, called ‘The Boring Company’, will rely on a vast network of tunnels (hence ‘boring’) and has been dubbed “amazing and impossible” by commentators.

A brief concept video posted to YouTube shows a flash red Tesla vehicle amid gridlocked traffic. The ‘game changer’ appears in the form of a futuristic metal elevator that lowers the Tesla underground to a road network in which individual cars are transported at high speeds on metal trolley-like platforms between destinations — doing away with traffic and associated collisions.

“As with most radical innovations today, science fact was once science fiction. If we’re going to help design the future of transport, we have to be able to envision it,” says Aurecon’s chief innovation officer John McGuire.

Engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon is currently working on a multitude of city-shaping tunnel projects. These include Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel project featuring two 9km tunnels and five new stations added to the city’s underground rail network; Sydney’s WestConnex New M5 with 9km-long twin tunnels from Kingsgrove to a new interchange at St Peters; and Auckland City Rail Link: a 3.4km underground rail line consisting of twin driven tunnels.

Aurecon’s tunnelling expert Tom Ireland says: “Many of the world’s largest cities have reached their capacity to absorb new infrastructure ‘on the ground’. These cities are looking at solutions — both above and below the ground — to overcome mobility challenges.

“Navigating through long-established built form can be technically and aesthetically challenging, so creating below the ground transport networks such as underground rail and road tunnels is high on many city agendas, and these projects are currently transforming cities around the world.

“Musk’s futuristic tunnel system is ambitious and innovative. Going underground makes sense and many cities have vast tunnel networks beneath heavily populated areas, for example, the London Underground — so we know it can work. His vision presents an exciting alternative to our gridlocked present.”

He adds: “A project of this scale would transform the face of transport as we currently know it. A major barrier will be cost, however, we live in a complex transport environment where multi-modal solutions must be on the table and, for some of the world’s largest cities, this solution could be an attractive option.

“Historically there are three elements that make up the cost of tunnel boring: equipment, materials and labour, each making up roughly a third of the cost. If we see significant enough advances in tunnel boring and new materials (perhaps at the heart of Musk’s invention) cost will likely decrease sharply and make Musk’s futuristic tunnel system more achievable. This will involve a move away from concrete towards a higher-strength, lighter-weight material for lining tunnels and may even encompass 3D printing this lining as part of the tunnel excavation cycle.

“In terms of underground trains, it’s the stations that represent the most significant network cost. Related to accessing the type of tunnels Musk suggests, we’ll need to ensure the mechanisation of the lifts that transport cars underground is cost-effective and quick.”

Traditionally, tunnels are designed to integrate a large amount of safety equipment. Elon’s proposal, in which cars are propelled forward by electric trolleys, renders much of this safety equipment unnecessary. The absence of the risk of petrol and diesel vehicle emissions, the autonomous control of the vehicles, and the need for increased power supply for such a network represents a potential paradigm shift in terms of the design of tunnels. In addition, specialised electronic equipment such as high-speed trolleys will need to be designed and tested, as well as corresponding intelligent control equipment/systems. Reduced tunnel size will also reduce costs and speed up construction — all highlighting a need to rethink traditional design.