Full-Bore Ahead: Musk Envisions Trenchless Industry with Driverless Equipment

Full-Bore Ahead: Musk Envisions Trenchless Industry with Driverless Equipment

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently announced plans to integrate the Tesla Semi and a prototype tunnel-boring machine with Tesla’s self-driving technology; noting that he sees the potential for fully autonomous vehicles specifically within the hydroexcavation, vacuum and boring markets. Musk participated in a surprise Q&A talk at last month’s SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas, and the off-the-cuff remarks came when an attendee inquired about the status of The Boring Co. tunnel project in Los Angeles.

The Boring Co. is a side project of Musk’s and the Los Angeles tunnel is intended to ease traffic congestion in the Southern California metropolis. The tunnel is part of Hyperloop One a larger proposed project which has attracted investors such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. If completed Hyperloop One will create a high-speed transportation system between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Musk states that this foray into public transportation has provided an acute awareness of the challenges faced by public utilities and contractors, in particular the need for skilled workers.

“So far the greatest challenge faced by The Boring Co. project has been the holdup with outside contractors and public utilities. Much of the issue stems from a lack of manpower and I see this as something Tesla can address,” says Musk. “By marrying our existing self-driving technology with the Semi and our prototype tunnel-boring machine — as well as several new features we’re developing specifically for vacuum and hydroexcavation applications — we can create an almost entirely unmanned industry. We can cut out the middle man and increase productivity.”

He also hopes the new equipment will address the human safety hazards of large tunnel projects.

“My vision is to create vehicles that can aid utilities and other companies without the expense and safety hazards of manpower. Imagine a large-scale, tunnel-boring project where not a single worker is injured or killed; for reference 10 workers died during construction of the Channel Tunnel from 1987 to 1993 — that’s just 30 years ago. With autonomous equipment we can lower or eliminate that number and pursue larger, more ambitious projects. The future is now.”

Crowd members pressed Musk for specifics, asking how a truck could possibly navigate work sites, deploy equipment and complete the prescribed tasks safely without, at the very least, human guidance. With his usual bombast, Musk rebuffs these concerns:

“These issues are negligible and an example of close-minded thinking. You have to look at the big picture: hyperloop public transportation systems crisscrossing the country, LA to D.C. in 30 minutes; small-scale utilities laying new waterlines, sewer lines, or fiber-optic cable for public high-speed internet, all with minimal cost to customers; a hydroexcavation company in North Dakota that is able to address the need for expansion with the area’s lack of skilled labor; and one day we may even be able to replace septic pumping trucks with this technology!”

The North American Society for Trenchless Technology immediately praised the entrepreneur’s focus on improving safety but questioned the impact on working families and the economy.

“While Mr. Musk’s intentions are noble, he seems unable to understand the economic impact of such plans,” says a NASTT spokesperson. “We welcome any and all efforts to improve workplace safety, however these plans do not address the other human cost — the livelihood of the industry’s workers — or its own safety implications. As it stands, the idea seems far-fetched at best and naïve at worst.”

Other industry groups such as the Association of Equipment Manufacturers echoed the sentiments. Industry concerns are real, but so far nothing seems able to stop Musk and he’s running full-bore ahead. The Associated Press reports that Tesla and The Boring Co. filed joint patents for a small-scale autonomous boring machine as well as autonomous vacuum and hydrovac trucks shortly before his SXSW appearance. Attempts to reach either company for comment were not immediately returned.


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