GOING UNDER

Tesla’s sale of parts to Elon Musk’s The Boring Company may be a clue to its strategy

Electric Dive
Electric Dive
Image: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
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What do electric cars have to do with a tunneling company? Only a few people except Elon Musk know. Tesla builds and sells electric vehicles. The Boring Company, founded by Musk in 2016, is intended to banish traffic jams with swift, cheap subterranean travel. As CEO of both companies, Musk wants both of them to transform how we move around.

One clue as to what’s happening underground is in the proxy statement (pdf) released before Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting on June 5. It reads:

Elon Musk is a co-founder and significant stockholder of The Boring Company, with which we have entered into an agreement to sell certain vehicle motor and battery pack components. We expect to invoice approximately $400,000 in total for parts sold and to be sold to The Boring Company during 2017 and 2018.

Yet the specifications of what Musk is building at The Boring Company remains unknown. Musk began digging a massive trench — 160 feet long and 16 feet deep -  in the parking lot of SpaceX (yet another of Musk’s companies) in 2017. Since then, the city of Hawthorne granted permission to extend the tunnel and recently the City of Los Angeles began working with The Boring Company to build a “loop” system capable of whisking passengers from downtown LA to the city’s international airport at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. According to an announcement Musk made in May, the $1 trip could cover the distance of 11 miles in eight minutes.

Former SpaceX engineer Steven Davis is leading Boring’s effort, but a clue to its connection with Tesla might be in the  “straightforward series of steps” Musk outlined last year. To achieve an order of magnitude improvement in cost per mile, Musk said he intends to dig narrower tunnels with faster machines that drill continuously rather than the slow, manual and often inefficient methods used today. Advances in Tesla’s electric powertrain may help build a more efficient machine, or The Boring Company could be tapping Tesla’s machining and tooling capabilities.

The company’s goal, Musk said in a TED talk, was to outpace a pet snail named Gary capable of going 14 times faster than today’s tunnel boring machines. “We want to beat Gary,” he said. A minute-long clip shows the concept in action. Cars zip along city streets before stopping on car-sized elevators built into the pavement. Vehicles are lowered on platforms into underground tracks that whisk them off to their destination before raising them back to street level to complete their journey.

The Boring Company seems to be making steady progress refining its tunneling machine, originally a used one from China Musk rechristened “Godot.” It may be The Boring Company, and Tesla, are designing an entirely new one.