Elon Musk Revises The Boring Company Underground Tunnel Plan

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Elon Musk is fixated on moving people from Point A to Point B efficiently. The core mission of Tesla Motors was to get people out of fossil fueled cars and into vehicles powered by electricity. Then, one day, Elon got caught in a traffic jam on his way to the Los Angeles International Airport and the idea of transporting people underground via numerous distributed tunnels sprang from his brow.

The earlier hyperloop concept probably first got him thinking about digging holes in the earth, through which he would run people pods at speeds up to 700 mph, but the 2016 traffic jam led him to create The Boring Company and a vision of world cities being crisscrossed by a multi-tiered system of tunnels as many as a dozen layers deep for vehicles to drive through while avoiding gridlock on surface streets. Many will remember a video last year that showed a Tesla Model S being whisked underground by an elevator to be deposited onto a track in one of those tunnels.

There was a lot of criticism of the concept from people in the city planning — especially transportation planning — world. In particular, while the video looked good, the question of why there wouldn’t be long lines of traffic sitting at elevator entrances never seemed to get answered.

Now, Elon has re-imagined his creation as a people mover only — no private vehicles at all, only a collection of surface-level stations where people can board an autonomous transportation pod, which will then be lowered underground to join the tunnel system The Boring Company has created.

Musk explained the reason for the change in another tweet:

Sharp-eyed readers may look at the bus-like transport module and wonder if it is the 10 to 12 passenger vehicle Musk spoke about last year that he claims could be built on the Model X chassis. They will also notice the pod in the video is headed toward LAX. The horror of being stuck in traffic on the way to the airport still gives Elon nightmares, apparently. The video doesn’t make clear where people taking the Musk Mobile to LAX will park their cars while they are off jetting around the world or how they will transport their luggage. Nor does it mention anything about the cost of using the system or who is going to pay to build it.

One of the joys of being a visionary is never having to get bogged down in the minutia of reality. “If I can envision it, they will build it and the customers will come,” seems to be the thought process inside Musk’s prodigious brain. Perhaps we should be thankful he is not proposing suborbital rocket rides from city centers to surrounding airports.

Editor’s note: As a trained city planner who almost got a specialization in transportation planning as well as land use planning, and then focused professionally on sustainable transportation options for one year before moving to Europe and changing careers, I would add a few notes that are probably making the rounds in those circles.

First of all, it is not hard to notice that this looks like a nice, semi-luxurious, futuristic bus … that goes underground. One of the hottest trends in transportation planning this century has been “bus rapid transit” (BRT), which makes riding the bus nicer, easier, quicker, and more convenient. There are various ways that buses get priority on the roadway and get better stations/stops for passengers to benefit from. In the best systems, the buses are also top notch and offer better passenger features than the norm. More or less, what is presented in the video is Elon’s version of BRT. None of these notes are to downplay what Elon has proposed — BRT is highly successful and making transit “sexy” is one of the most important things we could do to get more people in transit. I’m thrilled that he has taken this turn.

The idea of doing all of this via unimpeded, quicker tunnels is interesting. That’s one way to give buses priority. That said, digging tunnels has historically been a long, expensive, tedious process that involves both a lot of regulation and a lot of investment. This is not my expertise, so I won’t go much further on it, but I do still wonder about the real-world practicality of the vision. Perhaps Elon has some solutions here, or perhaps his marketing magic and brand will inspire cities to somehow move things along faster and more efficiently. (Many a transit agency director will certainly be envious if so.)

With Elon seemingly saying that cars will still be able to use the tunnels, tracks, and elevators, it’s unclear exactly what the rules will be here. Will they be underground bus lanes that cars can use but can’t enter unless there are no minibuses waiting at the entrance? I’m a bit confused, but it looks like we’ll get more info in time. for now, let’s celebrate that Elon has come around and is not only considering efficient mass transit but is even prioritizing and sexifying it to a degree that could help get more people out of cars and actually solve traffic congestion problems in cities.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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