May 18, 2018 / 7:23 AM / 7 months ago

UPDATE 1-Elon Musk brings high-tech charm offensive to Los Angeles tunnel plan

(Recasting with color, quotes from public meeting; adds byline)

By Steve Gorman and Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES, May 17 (Reuters) - Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk promised a cheering crowd on Thursday that his controversial dream of burrowing a high-speed network of "personalized mass transit" tunnels under Los Angeles could be achieved without disturbance or noise at the surface.

Musk, the Silicon Valley high-tech tycoon who founded the Tesla Inc. electric car maker, also said he would offer free trips through the first two research tunnels he completes to get public feedback before proceeding with a larger system.

"Like a weird little Disney ride in L.A.," Musk, casually dressed in denim, said to laughter and applause.

It remained uncertain whether construction permits he has received thus far, or is still seeking from various agencies, would allow public access to his tunnels on an experimental basis.

Known for aggressively taking on large-scale technical challenges with which he has had little previous experience, Musk ended his pitch on a humble note, telling the audience that realizing his vision "could only happen with public support."

The performance marked a rare personal appearance for Musk at such a public event, a town hall-style gathering attended by about 700 people at the Leo Baeck Temple, a synagogue in the city's affluent Bel-Air district, where Musk owns a residence.

Joining him on stage was Steve Davis, a top executive at Musk's aptly named underground transit venture, the Boring Company.

ROCK STAR TREATMENT

Musk's celebrity status preceded him, as some visitors pushed and shoved their way into the crowded hall before the event began. Half-joking that he was late because of heavy traffic, Musk received a rousing welcome as he arrived, and a standing ovation at the end of the hour-long session.

Whether staunch critics were swayed remained to be seen.

Boring's effort to win fast-track city approval of a 2.7-mile-long tunnel beneath a busy stretch of Los Angeles' West Side has drawn a court challenge from two neighborhood organizations.

It also comes as Musk wrestles with production problems for the rollout of his highly anticipated Model 3 sedan at Tesla, with some investors concerned his overlapping leadership roles at Boring and his rocket-building firm SpaceX has him spread too thin.

Resistance to his tunneling project marks a somewhat new type of challenge for Musk. Opponents say the exemption Boring seeks from a lengthy environmental review of the Los Angeles test tunnel violates state law forbidding such waivers for large-scope projects on a piecemeal basis.

But Musk denied trying to take any shortcuts, saying even with the waiver, Boring faces "600 pages of permits that would be required for this tunnel." He added he has every intent of submitting to a full environmental study for the tunnel network as a whole when the time comes.

A slightly shorter test tunnel is already largely finished underneath the tiny neighboring municipality of Hawthorne, where Boring and SpaceX are both headquartered.

Musk and Davis vowed the public has nothing to fear from their excavation plans, which they say will differ from conventional tunnels by running deeper underground, well beneath utility lines.

"You won't hear us, you won't feel us, you won't even know we exist," Davis said.

Musk said the first two tunnel segments would serve as proof-of-concept sites to demonstrate ideas for a traffic-easing network of subterranean tubes whisking passenger-carrying "pods" and individual cars from place to place at high speeds.

Musk launched his foray into public transit after complaining about traffic on Twitter in late 2016, vowing to "build a boring machine and just start digging."

In one apparent gain announced earlier, the Los Angeles transit authority voiced support for Musk's tunnel ambitions, tweeting that the agency and Boring had a "great meeting" on Thursday and would "be partners moving forward." (Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Dana Feldman Editing by Peter Cooney and Peter Graff)

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