On his Inauguration Day, President Trump promised the U.S. would soon get “new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.” While President Trump has announced it’s his intention to make big things happen with infrastructure efforts in the U.S., not many other announcements have been made regarding this initiative.
Of course, a Congress reticent to spend money will likely make things difficult for Trump and for Bannon, but in the meantime, another man may hold significant promise for at least the future of transportation projects in the country. The man’s name? Elon Musk.
Many of us know Musk as the co-founder of electric car company Tesla as well as being the founder and CEO of space exploration venture SpaceX. Musk was originally the founder of web companies Zip2 and Paypal before moving on to his space exploration, solar and electric car startups.
Today, Musk is worth about $15 billion, making him the 80th-richest person on the planet. At age 44, he shows no signs of slowing down in his zeal to affect the future of mankind for the better. He’s talked extensively about sustainable energy production and “multi-planetary life,” the latter enabled by human colonization of planets such as Mars.
But it’s Musk’s obsession with transportation that should most interest the Trump administration. Musk has envisioned a transcontinental transportation network he calls “Hyperloop” — an autonomous, quiet and highly efficient system of tubes stretching across the country that would allow land-based magnetically levitating trains to achieve speeds in excess of those of airplanes.
The tubes would feature reduced pressure and could go either above ground on columns or underground, eliminating the need for at-grade crossings of local roads, a hazard and potential slowdown for existing railroads. Musk has called Hyperloop “a fifth mode of transport” and a “cross between a [supersonic] Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.”
Musk originally dreamed up Hyperloop in 2012 and in 2013 released design documents for an initial phase of the network stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles following current Interstate Highway 5. Musk says the journey between the cities could be completed in 35 minutes — versus the present travel time of about six hours for cars.
Not only would Hyperloop beat the state in terms of transport time, it would beat it in terms of cost, with Musk insisting expenses would be $6 billion for a pure-passenger variant or $7.5 billion if it carried passengers and vehicles.
Currently, SpaceX is building its own mile-long track for the testing of train designs at its sprawling headquarters in Hawthorne, California. In January, a team from MIT demonstrated a working Hyperloop pod prototype after winning a design competition held by SpaceX last year. The team is one of 23 mostly American academic groups that have submitted designs that will move to a more advanced building stage later this year.
Some experts say that Hyperloop is impractical and risky, arguing that the network could be vulnerable to terror attacks or power outages, making it unsafe for use by the general public. Passengers would ride in windowless, sealed and narrow capsules that could be noisy or susceptible to vibration from near-sonic speeds.
But that hasn’t stopped governments and private companies in Canada, China, India, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Dubai from requesting that Hyperloop lines be installed in their ports and capitals. Currently, the city of Los Angeles is conducting a feasibility study for Hyperloop.
In fact, it was Los Angeles traffic that Musk found himself stuck in on a Saturday morning last December. Noticeably frustrated, Musk suddenly had the bright idea for a localized version of Hyperloop that could work within cities, as opposed to between them. “Traffic is driving me nuts,” tweeted Musk. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” An hour later, Musk had given his brainstorm a name: “It shall be called ‘The Boring Company,” he tweeted. “Boring, it’s what we do.” After two hours, Musk tweeted again, “I am actually going to do this.”
As it turns out, Musk has been thinking about tunnels for some time. “[Tunnels] would obviously solve urban congestion — and we wouldn’t be stuck in soul-destroying traffic all the time,” he says. Days after his traffic-induced brainstorm, Musk acquired BoringCompany.com. Musk won’t say where he intends to go with his first tunnel, only that he intends to accommodate cars.
Although the Boring Company doesn’t have any full-time employees as of yet, or even a clear business model, Musk claims that government contracts will most definitely play a role in its future. With the Trump administration’s infrastructure push publicly announced, private equity firms like The Carlyle Group and Blackstone have stated that they plan to make big infrastructure investments. “Infrastructure is at an inflection moment in the United States where both political parties agree on that one thing,” said Joe Baratta, the head of global private equity at Blackstone. Baratta said his company is raising $40 billion for infrastructure-related projects.
Even though Musk was initially a climate change booster who supported Hillary Clinton, since President Trump’s election, he’s made several visits to Trump Tower, reportedly impressing both Trump and Chief Strategist Bannon. Bannon has told associates that he sees Musk as someone who can empower job growth in the U.S. while serving as a beacon the administration can point to as regards to American dynamism and innovation.
In December, President Trump appointed Musk to the president’s Strategy and Policy Forum, joining JPMorganChase’s Jamie Dimon, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and IBM’s Ginni Rometty. Musk appears to be grateful for the recognition. In January, Musk publicly tweeted his support for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. “This may sound surprising coming from me,” he wrote. “[but] Rex Tillerson has the potential to be an excellent Sec of State.”
Musk noted Tillerson’s support of a carbon tax, a measure Musk has long supported. Musk also urged his Twitter followers to be calm in the wake of Trump’s Muslim travel ban and to read its entire text before reacting. On February 3, Musk met once again with Trump to discuss infrastructure and transportation.
Musk points to his experiences with SpaceX, which he founded in 2002. At that time, NASA rockets hadn’t changed too much from the days of the Apollo space program, and research in the field was expensive and slow. By offering low-cost, fixed-price launches, SpaceX was able to differentiate itself from other aerospace companies and win a $1.6 billion contract from the government to manage supply missions to and from the International Space Station.
As with SpaceX, Musk says that many of the Boring Company’s innovations will come during the process of growth. To date, SpaceX has developed the first private liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, has been the first private company to launch, orbit and recover spacecraft and has developed the first private reusable space launch technology program. The company has stated it has a long-range goal of enabling travel to and settlements on Mars.
What makes the Boring Company’s prospects more down-to-earth (or perhaps more accurately, “under the Earth”) is that tunnel technology isn’t new; it’s centuries old. What Musk wants to do, as he’s done with SpaceX, is to take tunnel contracting — which is currently mostly government-managed and funded — and privatize it, vastly reducing the cost and time required to make tunnels via better management and development of new technology.
Currently, in Los Angeles, there are plans to extend the city’s Purple Line subway by 2.6 miles over a period of 10 years. The city has pegged the cost at approximately $2.4 billion. “[That’s] basically a billion dollars a mile,” says Musk. “That’s crazy.”
What Musk envisions is a huge network of tunnels — under Los Angeles to start with — featuring as many as 30 levels that could bypass traffic on the surface and reduce trip time between common destinations by a factor of 10. “We have skyscrapers with all these levels, and we have a flat, two-dimensional road system,” Musk says. “When everyone decides to go into these structures and then exits them at the same time, you’re going to get jammed.”
What Musk brings to the table with the Boring Company and Hyperloop is a track record of success with wildly risky projects and a knack for recruiting super-smart talent. To date, his companies have been helped by government support — NASA contracts for SpaceX and tax credits for buyers of Tesla cars.
“People are mentioning jobs more these days,” Musk says. “But I sort of take it for granted that if you solve problems, then it takes people to solve them… My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization, a consequence of which will be the creating of hundreds of thousands of jobs and a more inspiring future for all.”
The Boring Company and Hyperloop are extensions of Musk’s vision. For the Trump administration, their success is key to moving America back on the fast track of technology leadership. Economic growth and job opportunities will be direct byproducts of that effort. The Trump administration would be wise to continue its support of Musk’s innovations and new ventures; America’s future may largely depend on them.