Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Even though RFK was channeling George Bernard Shaw at the time, his words could be the perfect embodiment of the world according to Elon Musk. Last week, Musk was on hand at the TED2017 conference in Vancouver, where he sat down with Chris Anderson, the curator for TED Talks, to discuss his vision for the future of transportation and infrastructure both in America and around the world.
The Boring Company Idea
In February, Musk unexpectedly began digging a tunnel at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. His stated goal was to eliminate the traffic headaches involved in getting to Los Angeles International Airport. It’s five minutes away as the crow flies, but can take up to an hour during peak traffic periods.
Musk told Anderson that there is “no real limit” to the depth of his proposed tunnels. “The deepest mines are much deeper than the tallest buildings are tall, so you can alleviate any arbitrary level of open congestion with a 3D tunnel network.” Musk thinks it will be possible to create “any arbitrary number of tunnels, any number of levels” in order to reduce surface congestion on the surface.
Making Tunneling Faster And Cheaper
But first, the cost of boring tunnels must be sharply reduced. “We need to have at least a ten fold improvement in the cost per mile of tunneling,” Musk said. One way to do that is to reduce the diameter of the tunnels from 28 feet today to about 12 feet. Wider tunnels are necessary to allow emergency vehicles to operate inside tunnels today and to permit adequate ventilation for cars with internal combustion engines.
But Musk foresees his tunnels being so safe that emergency vehicles won’t need access and, of course, only electric cars will be allowed. Or at least electrically powered sleds that Musk calls “electric skates” that will move cars around underground. “But if you shrink that diameter to what we’re attempting, which is 12 feet, which is plenty to get an electric skate through, you drop the diameter by a factor of two and the cross-sectional area by a factor of four. And the tunneling cost scales with the cross sectional area, so that’s roughly a half order of magnitude right there.”
The second cost reduction would come from improving the speed of the tunneling equipment. Musk says he could do that by cranking up the power of tunnel boring machines. “If you can jack up the power to the machine substantially, I think you can get at least a factor of two, maybe a factor of four or five improvement on top of that,” he said. Even more efficiency gains can be had by boring tunnels and building the walls to reinforce them at the same time. Today, those are two separate operations.
Musk is a student of popular culture icons. Some of the Easter eggs in Tesla automobiles are based on scenes in Star Wars or the Mel Brooks spoof Space Balls. When it comes to tunneling, he says the goal is to beat Gary The Snail from the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon. “Currently he’s capable of going 14 times faster than a tunnel boring machine,” Musk said. “We want to beat Gary. He’s not a patient little fellow. That will be victory. Victory is beating the snail.”
Merging Tunnels With The Hyperloop
Anyone who viewed the most recent CGI representation of what a system of underground tunnels might look like can understand how Hyperloop technology could be merged with the tunneling concept. He told Chris Anderson that some Hyperloop technology could be used underground since the tunnels will be able to withstand five or six atmospheres. That’s more than the partial vacuum planned for inside the Hyperloop tubes. “There’s no real length limit,” to a Hyperloop route, Musk said.
Asleep At The Wheel
Switching his focus to self-driving cars and the technology that will make them possible, Musk said Tesla is “still on track for being able to go cross country from LA to NY by the end of the year, fully autonomous from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during that journey.”
In about two years, people will be able to climb behind the wheel and go to sleep if they wish. “The real trick of it is not ‘how do you make it work 99.9 percent of the time,’ because if a car crashes say one in a thousand times then you’re probably still not going to be comfortable falling asleep,” Musk said. Instead, he thinks the chance of a crash will have to be more on the order of once in 100 lifetimes before people will feel comfortable napping while the car drives itself.
Of course, if it is on an electric pallet deep underground, there would be no reason not to go to sleep. If Musk could raise the average speed of those pallets from 125 miles per hour to 250 miles per hour, a trip from New York to Chicago could be accomplished in about 4 hours in complete safety. Crossing the continent would take less than 14 hours — about what is takes now to leave home, get to the airport, change planes, get to the other side of the country, and get to your destination. That’s when the popularity of air travel with all its hassles might suffer a significant decline.
Musk also thinks vehicle sharing will be a significant part of transportation in the future. “Absolutely this is what will happen: so there will be a shared autonomy fleet where you buy your car, and you can an choose to use that car exclusively, you could choose to have it be used only by friends and family, only by other drivers who are rated five stars, you can choose to share it some times but not other times. That’s 100 percent what will occur, it’s just a question of when.”
More Gigafactories Coming
What else did Musk have to tell Chris Anderson? Quite a lot, actually. He said he plans to announce “somewhere between 2 and 4 Gigafactories later this year. ” He didn’t specify where they would be located but did say they will be positioned to “address a global market.” China is one place that should be high on Elon’s list. He has said previously the world will need about 100 Gigafactories at some point to meet all its energy storage needs and quipped, “I hope I don’t have to build them all myself.”
Musk And Trump
Musk did address his connections with the Trump administration, something that has deeply irritated some of his supporters. He told Anderson,
“First of all, I’m just on two advisory councils where the format consists of going around the room and asking people’s opinion on things. So there’s like a meeting every month or two. You know, that’s the sum total of my contribution.
“But I think to the degree that there are people in the room who are arguing in favor of doing something about climate change or you know other certain social issues — you know, I mean, I’ve used the meetings I’ve had thus far to argue in favor of immigration and in favor of climate change. And if I hadn’t done that, there wouldn’t — that wasn’t on the agenda before. So maybe nothing will happen, but at least the words were said.”
Nothing Musk had to say in Vancouver was really news, but putting it all together paints a clearer picture of the man behind Tesla and how he foresees the future — a future that will touch the lives of millions of people before he is done.
Source: The Verge