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The Machines

What The Boring Company Does

4:45 PM EST on November 29, 2022

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal had a big reported story on Monday about Elon Musk's Boring Company—specifically, about its habit of making extravagant mass-transit proposals and/or commitments to cities and municipalities, and then delivering nothing. The story is great and you should read it. A particular passage from the article has been making the rounds on (Elon Musk's) Twitter since then, thanks to an almost too-perfect irony concerning the name of a drilling machine:

That fall, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was standing at a fenced-off site affixed with Boring signs near Fort Meade and telling a videographer to “get ready” for a high-speed train from Baltimore to Washington. Mr. Hogan declined to comment.

An aide to Mr. Hogan toured a parking-lot test site at the company’s then-headquarters near Los Angeles International Airport, getting a look at a tunnel-boring machine the company purchased secondhand. Boring named it Godot, the title character in Samuel Beckett’s play about a man who never shows up.

The Republican Hogan administration sped up the bureaucratic process for Boring, granting a conditional permit in October 2017 and an environmental permit a few months later.

All Boring had to do was bring its machine and start digging, former Maryland officials said. But months, and then years, passed. Maryland was waiting for Godot.

Boring deleted the Maryland project from its website last year.

That is indeed delightful. But for my money the key word, the crystallizing detail, in the above passage isn't "Godot," but rather "secondhand." You could miss that on your first pass. "Godot" is so squarely on the nose, such a perfect encapsulation of Musk's and the broader tech startup industry's half-literacy and incomprehension of metaphor, as to be nearly inebriating. And then there's the perfect centrist-politics image of great big worthless shitbag Larry Hogan rehearsing his touchdown dance from the opposite two-yard line because he got a sneering billionaire sociopath to make him an unenforceable promise backed by nothing. But "secondhand" is what really cracks the whole thing open.

The whole entire premise of the Boring Company is that it offers a revolutionized large-scale drilling process: It famously launched with Musk's boast that, fed up with traffic, he was "going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging." Its drilling technology would be faster, profoundly faster, than what came before it; it would be able to do things previous drills could not do that would make the process dramatically faster and cheaper and thus available to more municipalities looking to solve their traffic problems. That pitch happens to be bullshit...

Boring says it can improve tunneling speeds with fully electrified machines and by digging continuously, rather than stopping to assemble sections of the tunnel wall. The company also says angling machines in from ground level will help avoid the cost of first digging a shaft to launch the machine.

Veterans of the tunneling industry note that tunnel-boring machines have been electrified for decades, and that neither continuous construction of the tunnel lining nor digging in from aboveground is new.

...but nevertheless is what's behind all the fawning media coverage and thirsty appeals from sweaty elected officials. It is the basis for tantalizingly low-cost project estimates that persuaded the leaders of, for example, San Bernardino County, to abandon their light-rail plans in favor of Hyperloop. And here we are: Even if the Boring Company ever had actually showed up to dig the tunnel for, in this case, its much-publicized east-coast Hyperloop, it was going to be with some other company's drill.

Readers of Bad Blood, John Carreyrou's chronicle of the Theranos blood-testing scam and its unraveling, might recognize the harmonies here. Theranos, the company of disgraced fraudsters Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, won huge investments and lucrative lab-testing contracts on claims that its proprietary toaster-oven-sized countertop machine could revolutionize the speed, ease, and thrift of phlebotomy. Then, with the contracts secured, came a gradual walking-back of the boasts, leading to the final revelation that in fact Theranos was just using its competitors' machines to do the same work its competitors could do, only much shoddier, and with much less reliable results.

What undid Theranos, ultimately, is that there are relatively hard and fast laws governing medical laboratories and the devices used to do actual medical lab testing; there are accreditations and licenses. There are inspections. (As there are for plans to bore gigantic tunnels beneath the places where people live and work and do not wish to be swallowed by sinkholes!) When Theranos's oversold gizmo couldn't come close to complying with the laws or passing the inspections, the company lied about it, elaborately and theatrically, to fool regulators and investors and contract clients, and that is fraud.

It's there, at the attempt to deliver the service, even in a fraudulent form, that the similarities between Theranos and the Boring Company end. In a way it's sort of novel, Musk's iteration on the theme: If you simply never show up to do the work, then the grift stops shy of putting you afoul of anybody or any agency with the authority to put you in actual prison. If it's sheer coincidence that each of the Boring Company's hyped and then evidently abandoned plans to build functioning non-gimmick subterranean Hyperloops (up and down the eastern seaboard, or in Chicago, or Los Angeles, or San Bernardino) have tended to vaporize shy of what the Journal characterizes as "common bureaucratic hurdles like securing permits and conducting environmental reviews"—that is to say, shy of the steps that could be expected to uncover any fundamental impossibility or fraudulence, or to pin the company to any promises it would legally have to keep—well, that is a hell of a coincidence.

Of course, by that point Boring Company has leveraged the attention and hype, in combination with its purely for-show Las Vegas tunnel—which amounts to a very flat underground roller-coaster offering a more tedious alternative to a short walk—to line up the next sucker.

Musk's flamboyant personal weirdness, like Holmes's before him, combines with the futuristic bent of their pitched technologies to serve the impression that these people are doing things that have not been done before; a culture suffused with the stupid idea that all innovation is good and all solutions are to be found on the far side of it makes an easy mark for this. But even as a grift, this is not a new grift. There's even a very old term for it: a con. The question is whether the con man gets away, and with how much of who else's money.

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