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Tesla in Boring Company tunnel
A Tesla Model X electric car with retractable wheel gear sits inside the Boring Company’s test tunnel. The company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, says the apparatus turns the car into a “rail-guided train.” (Elon Musk via Twitter)

The Boring Company’s hole in the ground in Hawthorne, Calif., got a Hollywood-style debut tonight courtesy of the company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk.

Musk stood just outside a 1.14-mile-long test tunnel, illuminated in blue light, and spoke glowingly to a VIP crowd about how tunnels could turn the “soul-crushing” gridlock of urban traffic into a sci-fi experience.

“They’re sort of like wormholes,” he said. “You’re driving around, you think, ugh, I need to get to the other side of L.A., New York, whatever. Drop down the wormhole, pshew, pop out the other side and you just drive normally. I think this is, like, really a panacea.”

Tonight’s first tours served as a curtain-raiser for Musk’s Loop concept, which involves building a 3-D network of tunnels, elevators and ramps  — and then sending autonomous electric cars equipped with retractable guide wheels zipping through those tunnels at speeds of up to 150 mph. That’s a departure from Musk’s previous idea of using custom-built “skates” to carry cars and people.

“Obviously, for convenience’s sake, I use a Tesla,” Musk said. “That’d be silly if I didn’t. But this is not intended to be some sort of walled garden, or just for Teslas. Any autonomous EV can be outfitted with these guide wheels.”

For the Hawthorne demonstration, it’s just one car at a time, traveling at speeds of perhaps 45 to 110 mph. The guide wheels weren’t retractable. And based on initial reports, it’s a bumpy ride. “That’s a little bit scary right now,” Musk acknowledged.

The Boring Company concept depends on sending cars through the tunnels at rates of up to one vehicle per second.

If such rates can be achieved, and if the networks can be expanded with more and more interconnected tunnels going every which way, with many more stations along the way than would usually be the case for an urban transit system, the Loops could handle more human throughput than traditional subway systems, Musk said.

“We will have continuously operating cars in the Loop for those that do not have a car,” he said. “We’ll actually give priority to pedestrians and cyclists with cars that are continuously circulating in the loop. So even if you don’t have a car, you can still use the system.”

He compared the concept to a “3-D highway system underground.”

“You can have 16 tunnels going in the same direction. … There’s no limit,” he said. “This is very important: The system can be improved and expanded indefinitely.”

There are a lot of ifs involved, and the Hawthorne tunnel is clearly in beta mode. But Musk said he expected to expand the Boring Company’s tunneling efforts “to many cities around the world” over time.

The Boring Company is already working with officials in Chicago on an airport express route, with officials in Los Angeles on an underground shortcut to Dodger Stadium, and with officials in Maryland on a Baltimore-to-D.C. transit tunnel.

The key to success may well be whether all the infrastructure that Musk envisions can be built at an affordable cost. The Boring Company says it cost roughly $10 million to build the mile-long Hawthorne tunnel, which stretches from a parking lot next to SpaceX headquarters to another parking lot nestled amid warehouses and residential buildings.

The Boring Company is working on technologies aimed at accelerating the speed of tunneling, which typically proceeds 14 times slower than a snail’s pace, Musk said. One strategy is to be able to bore and reinforce tunnels continuously, rather than digging for 10 minutes out of every hour and then using the other 50 minutes to place reinforcements. Another strategy is to triple the power of tunnel-boring machines.

“We should be slightly faster than a snail after doing those things,” Musk joked. A mile-long tunnel could be dug in a week or two rather than, say, three to six months.

Yet another strategy is to turn the dirt excavated during tunneling into bricks that can be used for reinforcement. The Boring Company also plans to sell bricks to the general public at 10 cents a brick, or give them away for use in affordable housing.

Musk said the Boring Company could build tunnels not only for cars, but also for municipal utility networks or water mains. But Musk’s chief ambition is to bring an end to surface gridlock — a consummation devoutly to be wished by Seattle-area drivers.

“Finally, finally, finally it’s something that’ll solve the goddamn traffic problem,” Musk said.

As usual, Musk laid out the main points of his plan via Twitter even before the party got started. Here’s how the thread unwound:

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