(TNS) — Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s vision of autonomous vehicles that would zip back and forth at more than 100 mph in tunnels between Chicago’s Loop and O’Hare International Airport has drawn both interest and skepticism from transportation and engineering experts.
“We’re scratching our heads as to whether this is truly ready for completion,” said Joe Schwieterman, professor and director at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “… This could be a big victory, but it could be a big risk.”
“The word I keep hearing is ‘stunned,’” said a source familiar with the proposals, speaking of reactions from industry professionals. “They couldn’t believe a city as powerful and conservative as the city of Chicago would agree to a fantasy.”
The city of Chicago has selected Musk’s The Boring Co. to build a high-speed express train to O’Hare. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration picked Boring’s bid over a more conventional high-speed rail proposal.
There are a lot of “ifs” about the Musk project, which Emanuel has promised would be financed by The Boring Co. and not the public. Emanuel said the city was taking a bet on Musk, “a guy who doesn’t like to fail — and his resources.”
One “if” is that the project will use unproven tunneling technology. The economic feasibility of Boring’s project, which a source familiar with the company’s proposal has estimated at less than $1 billion, relies on Musk’s confidence that it can build tunnels at least 14 times faster than previous efforts.
Jim Hambleton, a Northwestern University expert in geomechanics, laughed when he heard the speed estimate. “I doubt it,” he said.
“There’s reason to be skeptical,” said Hambleton, a Northwestern assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies how soils move. “Tunneling is an endeavor that’s filled with uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen once you get underground.”
Hambleton said speed is not the issue so much as controlling ground settlement and making sure you don’t damage any infrastructure.
“No one likes a crack in their house,” Hambleton said. “Can we go quickly? Yes. Can we go quickly while accepting the casualties of perhaps not controlling sediments well enough? That’s the rub.”
Nevertheless, Hambleton said he admired Musk’s ambition.
One way to cut costs is by making a smaller tunnel, said Herbert Einstein, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor, whose research interests include underground construction. The Chicago tunnels would be 14 feet in diameter, or about half the size of typical tunnels, and thus can be dug faster and for less money, Boring officials say.
The project would use a 16-passenger self-driving tram based on a modified Tesla Model X car chassis, so it would be smaller than a regular train. But Einstein noted that the size of the tunnel cannot just be limited to the size of the vehicle, “because you need space for rescue.”
In California and Maryland, where Boring also is planning projects, the company has run into regulatory hurdles and concerns from elected officials about its technology.
Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said he was “not surprised” that Musk won the bid, simply because the region does not work well together in terms of transportation and funding, so the city is willing to take a chance.
“If someone walks in and says ‘We’re willing to pay for something if you’ll be the test case,’ it’s a hard offer to turn down,” said Harnish. “It certainly provides a lot of splash.”
Harnish said that besides going with Musk, the region also needs to move forward with another way to get high-speed trains to the airport, not just from downtown but from nearby cities like Indianapolis and Champaign.
“Service to O’Hare is too important to put all your money on that one bet,” said Harnish.
Another question is how passengers will be able to escape in case of an emergency, since the tunnel that will carry the trains is imagined as deep below the ground. “Have they properly considered emergency evacuation?” asked Harnish.
The Boring Co. is planning on a “proof of concept” tunnel in the Los Angeles area, which would stop just short of Culver City. Culver City Mayor Thomas Small said his community is eager for alternative modes of transportation, “excited” about the Boring project and sees Musk as “a guy we’d want on our side.”
“But they don’t really have it figured out how it’s going to work here yet, and we don’t either,” said Small.
Chicago will next begin one-on-one negotiations with The Boring Co., after which an agreement will be presented to the City Council. During the negotiation phase, the company will be required to further develop its plans and ensure they meet all necessary safety, construction, financing and operating requirements, according to the city.
The contract also will include protections to ensure taxpayers are shielded from any costs incurred by an incomplete project, the city said in a statement. The overall project costs and construction timeline will be finalized during this process.
Hani Mahmassani, director of the transportation center at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, said that many details of the project will likely be tweaked going forward.
“This is not off-the-shelf technology, but it’s certainly within the realm of the feasible and doable,” said Mahmassani. “Technologically, we’re not sending something to Mars,” he said, referring to one of Musk’s other interests.
Mahmassani said the biggest uncertainty he sees is the financing and the project’s financial feasibility down the road, including whether there is enough of a market for the service. Boring has stated a goal of charging between $20 and $25, or about half the cost of a typical ride-share or cab ride.
Former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who is challenging Emanuel for the mayor’s office, said Thursday that she thinks the city will spend money on the Boring project, despite Emanuel’s promises.
“I think there’s no chance that it’s going to be free,” said Lightfoot, who says more money should be spent on neighborhoods. “All the more reason it’s important to have transparency around this, so people really understand what the deal is.”
©2018 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.