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Billionaire innovator Elon Musk is known for his California rocket and electric car businesses, but he looked to the Midwest to show he is serious about building an ultra-high-speed underground rail system from New York to Washington, D.C.
In pursuit of a massive tunnel boring machine to innovate yet again, Musk struck a deal to acquire one from Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Super Excavators. He also drew upon the 67-year-old contracting company's expertise to get going, with an ultimate goal of developing ways to dig tunnels faster — an accomplishment that could dramatically reduce the cost of bringing his latest dream to life.
Musk, CEO of both automaker Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX, has quietly assembled a team of advisers to aid his latest startup, which he appropriately named The Boring Co. He tabbed Super Excavators as temporary consultants to help get the machine up and running.
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The previously unearthed ties between The Boring Co. and Super Excavators reveal fresh insight into how Musk has become serious about tunnel technology. In July, he teased that he had received "verbal" government approval to build a "hyperloop" rail system to zip passengers in magnetically levitated underground rail cars through tubes from New York to Washington, D.C., in 29 minutes — a 226-mile trip that normally takes nearly three hours by the fastest train.
"It's always good to have an innovator looking at a process," said Peter Schraufnagel, president of Super Excavators. "We're excited to see what comes out of this."
When Musk confidant, SpaceX engineer and tunnels project leader Steve Davis approached Super Excavators several months ago, the Wisconsin company had a ready-made solution.
The Canadian-made boring machine leased to Musk is several hundred feet long and 14 feet in diameter. The giant machine, made by Canadian manufacturer Lovat, had bored holes for sewers in San Francisco and a flood-control project in Indianapolis.
Schraufnagel declined to say how much Musk is paying, but buying a used tunnel boring machine can cost several million dollars.
"They pretty much knew what they were looking for," he said. "It was the most shovel-ready machine of the size" they needed.
The machine was shipped to Hawthorne, Calif., where Musk set it up in the parking lot of SpaceX to start boring a pilot tunnel.
Musk nicknamed his machine Godot, after the character in a Samuel Beckett play who never arrives. His goal is to create a machine that can tunnel through the earth faster than his pet snail Gary, which would equate to more than 10 times speedier than current technology.
"Victory is beating the snail," Musk quipped in an on-stage interview at TED Talks.
He has also pitched a plan to build a network of tunnels underneath L.A. to transport cars on high-speed electric platforms to bypass congestion.
Musk was not available for comment.
Industry leaders said there's room for innovation, particularly if the Tesla and SpaceX CEO can develop a machine that can tunnel through the earth while building retaining walls at the same time — a feat that most tunnel boring machines cannot accomplish today.
But many remain skeptical because of the complexities and unpredictability in tunneling and the need to navigate a thicket of government regulations.
"The stakeholder approval process is often far longer than the actual construction of the project," said Mike Mooney, director of the Center for Underground Tunneling and SmartGeo at the Colorado School of Mines.