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Elon Musk’s Boring business digs in with a new pitch

San Francisco — Elon Musk’s tunnelling start-up The Boring Company is working on much wider tunnels than publicly announced, which could hugely expand the reach of the business.

The tunnels that the company is pitching to potential clients are 6.4m in diameter, dwarfing the 3.7m tunnels the Boring has built to date. The wider throughway would accommodate two shipping containers side by side, according to a copy of a pitch obtained by Bloomberg.

The larger tunnels would be a big expansion in scope for Boring, which has until this point worked on tunnel systems designed to transport passengers.

When the company started in 2016, Tesla founder Musk spoke about tunnels hundreds of kilometres long for high-speed transportation that could “solve traffic”. But the company has scaled down its goals, pitching shorter projects within cities. Most recently, it completed 2.7km of tunnel under Las Vegas.

Boring did not respond to requests for comment. 

The new pitch for its planned freight-tunnel business shows three ways that freight could be transported through its tunnels. One image shows a standard 2.4m tall shipping container, which barely fits into a standard Boring tunnel. The next shows the same container in a much roomier 6.4m-in-diameter tunnel, and the last shows two containers fitting side by side in the 6.4m tunnel, separated by 30cm of space.

In all cases, the containers are sitting on what are labelled as “battery-powered freight carriers”. The carriers appear to take the form of a slim rectangular shelf that extends almost the width of the containers.

The proposal “is totally doable” from an engineering perspective, says Anne Goodchild, founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Centre at the University of Washington, who pointed out that many large companies, such as Boeing, have similar tunnels at their facilities. “You could totally move it in a tunnel.”

The constraint, she said, is cost — along with finding the right environment where a tunnel works better than a road.

Still, efforts emerge from time to time to advance the idea.

In Switzerland, a group of investors is backing Cargo Sous Terrain, which aims to build a network of subterranean tunnels to transport pallets and containers via autonomous vehicles. The company is awaiting approval from the second chamber of Swiss parliament, which is due to begin deliberations on the project later in the year, according to a spokesperson.

In late 2016, Amazon received a patent for what it called “dedicated network delivery systems”. It included underground conveyor belts and vacuum tubes to transport containers and packages.

Boring is negotiating with California’s San Bernardino county to build a 6km tunnel that would connect a light-rail station with the local Ontario International Airport.

The company has pitched its wider tunnels to the county, where supervisor Curt Hagman is trying to build interest in a freight tunnel to relieve congestion on busy roads around Ontario, Chino and nearby cities. Dubbed the Inland Port, the project has been floated in various forms for decades, and this version remains in the concept stage.

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Boring has marketed its tunnels as costing much less than the competition. In Las Vegas, the bill for its project came to $52.5m, with the convention centre authorities selecting the start-up in large part because of its lower price tag compared with other bids on the project.

That advantage could erode if the company expands its tunnels. As width increases, the costs of drilling increase even faster, mainly because of the difficulty of disposing of the debris created by the excavation, says Tom Groark, executive director of the Moles, a trade organisation for the heavy construction industry.

But keeping the larger tunnels at a standard 6.4m, instead of building to custom widths, could help keep costs down. “They’re making the job fit the machine, and that’s huge,” said Groark. Normally, he said, once tunnel boring machines finish a project, they go back to the manufacturer. Then they get modified to fit the next job at considerable expense.

Transporting freight underground, instead of on clogged freeways or overground railways, has long been a dream of urban planners. It has proven difficult to realise because of the expense and regulation involved.

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