On Thursday morning, the Chicago mayor’s office announced that it had selected Elon Musk’s tunnel digging venture, the Boring Company, to build a high-speed transportation system linking O’Hare airport and downtown Chicago.
Up until this point, the Boring Company was just a handful of employees working from two trailers in the SpaceX parking lot, where it is digging a test tunnel. Boring has developed a tunnel excavation system that can currently excavate at 1/15 the speed of a snail, but so far the only products it has sold are $1 million worth of hats and $10 million worth of flamethrowers.
In this sense, the Chicago deal is a major validation for Musk’s boring side project.
Chicago’s airport loop will consist of consist of an 18-mile rail network for autonomous, 16-passenger cars that can reach peak speeds of 150 miles per hour. This is by far the company’s largest city contract so far. Last year, the Boring Company received permission to dig a 12 mile tunnel between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and last month the city of Los Angeles granted the company permission to build a 2.7-mile test tunnel.
According to the Chicago Tribune, rides on the Loop will probably cost around $25 and the system will be able to move about 2,000 passengers per hour. Boring estimated the project will cost less than $1 billion, but so far actual costs have not been made public.
“We’re taking a bet on a guy who doesn’t like to fail, and his resources,“ Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel said ahead of a Thursday afternoon joint press conference with Musk. “The risk—with no financial risk—is I’m betting on a guy who has proven in space, auto and now a tunnel, that he can innovate and create something of the future. Given his track record, we are taking his reputation and saying, ‘This is a guy in two other transportation modes who has not failed.’ That’s what we’re doing.”
Despite Emanuel's enthusiasm, which makes sense given that he is running for re-election, Chicago has a history of pursuing ambitious civic projects that never materialize and the O'Hare loop still faces a number of hurdles. For starters, the Boring Company's excavation technology is still experimental so despite an aggressive three-year construction time frame, it may end up taking much longer. Moreover, the city still needs to negotiate and finalize a contract with the Boring Company and the plan must get approval from the city council.
Still, Musk is known as much for his grandiose promises as his ability to follow through on him, so it'd hardly be surprising if Chicagoans find themselves zipping across the city in Boring Company tunnels in a few years. Whether it'll actually be completed on Emanuel's time frame, however, is a different story, so until the first loop passengers disembark for O'Hare, I wouldn't hold your breath.