Elon Musk’s Boring Co. got the green light to work on a project connecting downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport, the company’s first major city contract. The plans represent a victory for the 18-month-old start-up and a reality check for the billionaire.
The project announced Thursday, dubbed Loop, doesn’t match the ambitions Musk laid out in a 2013 white paper. That vision called for a system that would run at 760 miles per hour, which he thought would be perfect for connecting cities that are a few hundred miles apart. The Chicago system is expected to reach speeds of up to 150 mph. That should get passengers to the airport in about 12 minutes — still significantly speedier than current options. The trip often takes about 40 minutes by train or car.
Musk hasn’t given up on his original vision for an ultra-high-speed transport system. At a news conference with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday, Musk said Loop “will ultimately transition to the Hyperloop system.” That technology would be designed for longer distances, like, say, Chicago to New York. “That’s where you’d want to make use of the Hyperloop,” Musk said.
An update to Boring’s website Thursday outlined plans to rely on “autonomous electric skates,” analogous to train carriages carrying eight to 16 passengers apiece. The pods will be made by another Musk company, Tesla Inc., he said at the news conference. Boring leaves room for the possibility of cars using the system, too. The website says a skate could also hold “a single passenger vehicle.”
The system is to run underground, giving Musk’s venture a chance to show off its tunnel-boring technology. The company has said it’s faster and cheaper than other subterranean projects. “Tunnel construction and operation will be silent, invisible and imperceptible at the surface,” the company said.
A success in Chicago would give Boring considerable credibility as it tries to move ahead on other projects, including service in the Los Angeles area and a planned system between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Aside from a test tunnel it is digging in its hometown of Hawthorne, the company lacks construction experience.
"Elon Musk is looking for a place to prove his technology works, and Chicago is rolling out the red carpet for him," said Joe Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.
Chicago is bearing no financial responsibility for the project, Emanuel said. Boring is to finance the entire construction cost.
Musk is a major financier of the effort, but the business has also raised capital through the sale of merchandise, such as hats ($1 million in sales) and flamethrowers ($10 million). Boring said the Chicago project will cost $1 billion, though experts have said similar projects typically cost much more. The company said the price for riders will be about half that of an Uber or taxi ride, which are currently around $40 per fare.
Funding the effort didn’t appear to be a concern for Musk. “I don’t really have much trouble raising money, historically,” he said. “So I don’t expect too much trouble doing so in this situation.”
Scott Waguespack, a Chicago alderman who is a frequent critic of Emanuel, called the proposal “a fanciful project” that “makes the mayor look cool” in an election year. He noted that there have been no public hearings on the project and said much remains unknown about its social, environmental and legal effects.
In winning the Chicago bid, Boring beat out a consortium that included Mott MacDonald, the civil engineering firm that designed a terminal at London's Heathrow Airport, and JLC Infrastructure, an infrastructure fund backed by former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, according to people with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Winning the nod means Chicago officials will negotiate exclusively with Boring for one year over details of the project.
“I suspect it's going to evolve a few times before anything concrete gets done,” said Hani Mahmassani, a professor of engineering at Northwestern University. That said, with his other companies — which include Tesla and launch company SpaceX — Musk has “been able to pursue and fulfill visions that others say are too difficult,” Mahmassani added.