TUM San Francisco: TUM Boring – It’s anything but!

April 7, 2021

What would our cities look like if we moved private and public vehicle traffic below the city? Students in the TUM Student Initiative TUM Boring – Innovation in Tunneling will compete this summer in the USA in the Not-A-Boring-Competition founded by Elon Musk. TUM San Francisco Liaison Officer, Jeff Ouimet, caught up with three students from TUM Boring for an interview to learn about the initiative, the competition, and their experiences in a TUM student initiative.

Cities are cramped and hard to navigate. We can expand buildings into the third dimension by making them taller and taller, but people still have to rely on a two-dimensional network of city streets to get to those buildings. Pedestrians conflict with public and private vehicles on the streets and sidewalks as people move and cargo is being transported from place to place. Subways allow us to use the third dimension below the streets, but only in a very limited way.

Can we move the street traffic below the surface? This question was posed by entrepreneur Elon Musk when he founded the Not-A-Boring-Competition, which challenges teams from around the world to design and build tunneling technologies that would allow passenger cars and cargo vehicles to whisk through a subterranean 3D network below the city.

Beat the snail: TUM students rising to the challenge

Rising to this challenge, a team of 60 brilliant young engineers and entrepreneurs at TUM have founded the student initiative TUM Boring – Innovation in Tunneling and will soon travel to the USA to compete in the inaugural Not-A-Boring-Competition. What do they hope to do? Nothing less than design and build the world’s fastest tunnel boring machine! 

Unbelievable, but true: State of the art tunnel boring machines are still 14 times slower than a snail. The goal of the competition is to design and build a tunneling machine that can beat the snail. TUM San Francisco liaison officer, Jeff Ouimet, recently had the opportunity to sit down with three founding members of this group to talk about their student-led initiative and the unique opportunities they have as students at TUM:

  • Marvin von Hagen is a fifth-semester student at TUM pursuing his bachelor’s degree in management and technology.
  • Kilian Schmid is a third-year student pursuing his bachelor’s degree in mechatronics.
  • Haokun Zheng is a third-year student pursuing his bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Why Tunneling?

Jeff Ouimet asked the young entrepreneurs what it was about tunneling that attracted them. “Tunneling is very interesting to me because I never had a short way to school or university, it’s so frustrating. This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. And, I always wanted to found a startup”, said Marvin von Hagen. He knows that startups take a lot of capital to get off the ground, especially when it comes to paying salaries. However, being part of a TUM student initiative has allowed him to achieve his goal without that financial pressure: “With this opportunity here, we don’t get paid ourselves because we’re still studying. All of our members are still studying and no one gets paid.” 

Kilian Schmid added, “I think this opportunity to have such a large team for such a complex technology, not just software but actually something in the real world, is great. The really cool thing on this project is that we empower hardware with software. Together, they make this project happen.” Looking at the big picture, Schmid summed up all the founders’ motivation very succinctly: “It’s the enormous gap between the current system and what is technically possible. It’s crazy what’s possible with something like an electric autonomous car in a tunnel.”

Not intimidated by worlds-class competition

The final list of competitors in the Not-A-Boring Competition includes twelve teams from industry, universities, and even hobbyists from Germany, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. TUM Boring is one of two German university teams that made it into the top twelve in this competition. The other team is Dirt Torpedo from DHBW Mosbach.

When asked who they see as their biggest competition, von Hagen stated, “Our biggest competition is not another university. Our biggest competition is time!” Haokun Zheng added, “We haven’t seen another team of our scale or project size. We are carefully confident.” Schmid noted the technical challenges involved in transporting their boring machine to the United States. “This is not a small prototype that can be easily transported by a car or a plane. There are several systems that need to work together. Just that enormous complexity combined with time is the challenge.”

Proving the value of TUM’s hands-on educational approach

Ouimet wanted to find out how these students are applying their TUM education to this competition. Zheng noted that, because engineering is so complicated, it takes both classroom education and hands-on experience to succeed.

“Engineering takes a lot of experience, and this is hard to teach. Having TUM's support in entrepreneurial projects alongside our studies, I would say these are two key components. TUM demands a lot from us academically and also promotes these entrepreneurial side projects.” 

Schmid echoed that sentiment, adding that “One thing we look at when people apply for our project is that they have the academic experience and also project experience, and it’s really cool here in Munich how the university strongly supports the side projects like ours. It goes through all the disciplines, from mechanical engineering to electrical engineering, to computer science, to economics and everything. That’s what we gathered in our team over the last months.” 

“Skills like collaboration with others and how to efficiently work in a team can’t be taught academically.”

When Ouimet asked how much their experience on the TUM Boring initiative would enhance their further education and career prospects, Schmid replied, “a lot!” He went on to note that it is an honor to lead such a big project at their young ages, and that they will benefit greatly from it.

Zheng pointed out that, from the standpoint of developing soft skills, their experience on the TUM Boring initiative will be a major benefit in industry. “Skills like collaboration with others and how to efficiently work in a team can’t be taught academically. We’ll have the great academic teaching from TUM, and everything else that will be valuable in the workplace we are learning on this project.” Von Hagen noted that “the bonus we get on our CV is nothing compared to the bonus we get in terms of learning.”

“One of the many reasons why a project of this crazy magnitude is actually possible is because TUM and President Hofmann have been encouraging students to go forward with these kinds of projects.”

The TUM Boring student initiative has generated a lot of interest at TUM. In fact, the project is strongly supported by TUM President Thomas Hofmann. 

When asked what this means to their initiative, Zheng noted: “One of the many reasons why a project of this crazy magnitude is actually possible is because TUM and President Hofmann have been encouraging students to go forward with these kinds of projects.

Support from the whole TUM family

TUM has been really kind in supporting us in all sorts of ways; to make our lives easier and actually make this competition real and our team real. In the early stages, President Hofmann reached out to us after hearing about us and was very straightforward and helpful in one-on-one conversation. This is just a general representation of the character TUM has in regard to communication with students when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurial spirit.” 

It is not only the TUM President who has taken note. The TUM Boring team has also garnered a significant amount of coverage in the German press, such as Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungHandelsblatt, and Süddeutsche Zeitung as well as in the Munich startup press: Munich Startupgolem.de, and Gründerszene.

The entrepreneurial engineers of TUM Boring – Innovation in Tunneling are supported by the whole TUM family and we all wish them well as they come to the United States to beat the snail.


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