Elon Musk Is Wrong. The Only Way to Save City Transport Is to Share Large Vehicles With Other People.

The horror. Photo: Pacific Coast Highway/Wikimedia Commons
The horror. Photo: Pacific Coast Highway/Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday Wired published an article detailing Silicon Valley celebrity Elon Musk’s thoughts on public transit. What happened next is worth a closer look.

Transit “sucks,” said Musk, because it puts him in close proximity to scary people “who might be a serial killer.” And that’s why everyone should travel everywhere in their own vehicles, he says.

On Twitter, transit maven Jarrett Walker pointed out that in light of Musk’s abhorrence of sharing space with other people, his transportation concepts should be viewed as examples of “elite projection.” Musk thinks that if he can invent a service that meets his personal wants and needs, he’ll solve society’s transportation problems. But when your solution is personalized travel, it’s never going to work for everyone in geographically constrained cities.

So did Musk have a rational response to Walker’s critique? Or a well-reasoned argument for personalized transport as a solution for crowded cities where space is limited?

You be the judge:

It’s telling that Musk is so sensitive to criticism and yet had no substantive rejoinder to Walker’s analysis.

Musk must not be accustomed to being challenged. And who can blame him? Most of the press he receives is fawning hero worship.

The appeal of Elon Musk’s transportation ideas is their audacity. Who wouldn’t want to bypass traffic on some kind of  underground tube. Or travel hundreds of miles in a few minutes. That sounds amazing.

Elon Musk — who got rockets to land backwards — is telling us it’s possible. So cast all your skepticism aside.

But Musk’s transportation ventures should be getting much more scrutiny.

His Hyperloop offshoot has government agencies in multiple states spending time and effort on bids to team up on implementation. But a Hyperloop has never been tested with human subjects. There’s not even a completed “pod” to transport people.

Then there’s the Boring Company, the companion venture that will purportedly revolutionize one of the most complex tasks in engineering thanks to the ingenuity of Musk and his team. Musk says he can speed up tunnel drilling by a factor of ten.

But in one of the better pieces of reporting on Musk’s transportation ventures, Wired checked in on the Boring Company, and found that a lot its workforce now consists of SpaceX engineers working part-time. One of those engineers told the City Council in Hawthorne, outside L.A., that the company isn’t doing anything unconventional with the used tunnel-boring machine it purchased. It’s just learning the ropes.

Even if you believe that Musk will one day reinvent tunneling, those tubes won’t be good for much if they’re going to shoot people around in personalized pods or car sleds. Sooner or later, there won’t be enough space to scale up those individualized vehicle systems.

The tunnels will really only be useful if they’re carrying large, shared transit vehicles full of — gasp — other people.

  • jf

    I’d rather have all the potential serial killers riding on buses than giving them large powerful weapon-vehicles.

  • TakeFive

    Elon is my hero… /sigh
    Somebody has to chase rainbows, no?

  • WQ4

    If Musk can develop Transporter technology, that would solve the urban geometry problem. It worked for the Federation.

  • bettybarcode

    Also, motor vehicles can’t be beat for fast, anonymous getaways & dumping bodies in the woods.

  • HN

    Jarrett Walker showed that he is an IDIOT. Jarrett Walker STFO

  • Matt Korner

    Smaller automated mass-transit vehicles do not necessarily translate into a lower system capacity because the headways or following distances can be very short, so I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of smaller transit vehicles as impractical.

  • Matt Korner
  • Fritz

    What’s the O for? So mysterious!!

  • Stephen Simac

    Subsidized Transport For Oligarchs

  • Ovaltine. (I used my secret decoder ring.)

  • dawdler

    Yeah – that’s what I was wondering. If pods carrying small groups of people are able to travel almost next to each other (within very short distances) and don’t have to slow down substantially as traffic flows in and out, then how much more efficient do you really get by having pods for very large groups of people.

    I’m not anti large group transit. But i wonder how much people are overblowing the difference between smaller pods and larger pods…

  • voltairesmistress

    I love how fast, clean, and orderly many European cities’ subways are. But I don’t usually enjoy the ride on San Francisco buses or BART. So I mostly ride a bike or walk or take a ferry when I can. Bart and Muni are often crowded and can be unpleasant. My last bus ride an inebriated man insisted on talking with me. My bad, I guess, b/c I stood up to let him get a good seat. 10 minutes of trying to parry rambling, drunk discursions on how most people are immoral. He had anger to him that made it safer to stay polite rather than ignore him.

  • Emmy Lors

    What is idiotic is his claim that the hyperloop would be one-tenth the cost of HSR at three times the speed. Only a complete idiot or charlatan would make such fantastical claims about completely untested technology that does not exist outside of his wild imagination. That lacks even a credible functioning prototype, yet Musk talks about it as if it were fact. In the psychiatric field they would call it having delusions of grandeur.

  • Earl D.

    The real problem isn’t that highly productive narcissists like Musk don’t have a clue about public transportation and unconsciously project their own transportation needs onto the mass public, but rather that US cities are largely run by people who never take public transportation themselves, don’t understand it and are very easily seduced by glamorous nimbus that surrounds the top echelons of the tech ecosystem.

  • Ethan

    The company has said the pods will hold 8-16 people. That’s not a personalized pod. It’s a mini-bus. Cars have shorter headways than trains. At car-like headways, the capacity is equivalent to light rail. What remains to be seen is whether and how much cheaper the company can build and operate a system, as well as if it can reduce headways further and increase throughput using high-tech sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

  • Ethan

    Usually delusional people can’t claim to have revolutionized an industry as important as rocketry, or brought us into the age of fully-electric cars sooner than expected.

  • Ethan

    “Sooner or later, there won’t be enough space to scale up those individualized vehicle systems.”

    Aren’t we trying to slow and stop overpopulation? Aren’t industrialized countries facing declining populations? Los Angeles’ population is projected to grow by about a third and then flatten. The responsible thing to do is plan transportation capacity based on projections. In some cities that could mean an excellent network of autonomous buses. In other cities that might include subways. In other cities these tunnels with pods of 8-16 people might provide enough capacity in conjunction with some combination of traditional subways as well as autonomous vehicles and also bikes.

  • Vinstar

    Then he should stick to what he’s good at (building cars for the rich) instead of making outlandish, childish comments about something he knows nothing about. It makes him look stupid. Not everyone shares his distaste for mass transit so he should speak for himself. People in Europe and Asia have a very favorable view of their modern transit systems especially of their high-speed rail systems so he is very wrong about that. But when the quality of transit is very poor, slow and underfunded, using antiquated technology like in America then of course people there will have a negative view of it.

  • Eric34646

    In that case, what is the advantage of building a giant tunnel network for them? Just put them in the HOV lane on the freeway.

  • WQ4

    Supposing there is no difference, then why invest in new technology? There is no problem with existing technology. The transit problem is a political problem. All of the fawning over Musk’s vaporware is a distraction.

  • dawdler

    I think we still need a lot of investment in autonomous systems of vehicles able to get people where they need to go and the infrastructure to support them. Regardless of the size of the vehicles. The distinction between group vs individual size seems less important to me. Not sure if the hyperloop is really feasible but Tesla has been pushing autonomous driving tech and that’s not a bad thing. IMHO.

  • John Murphy

    Electric cars aren’t really revolutionary – the lift that Musk has made is to give the auto industry a kick in the butt. That’s a political or societal problem, not a technical problem.

    And I’m not really sure I’d color SpaceX the way you did either. The rocketry problems are just a different application of existing technology – if you asked NASA – “is this possible” the answer would be “how much do you want to spend to make it possible”.

    These other problems there isn’t a clear technical path

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    There have been better ideas like this before. I’d rather give this a shot:
    http://www.ruf.dk/

  • dawdler

    Where I think the headline is wrong is the assumption that it has to be LARGE vehicles. I think it’s the SHARING part that’s critical. Private ownership will be hugely inefficient with regard to capacity. I think whether it’s large or small vehicles, the key is they have to be part of a shared transit infrastructure.

  • Matt Korner

    I, myself, have no problem converting more mixed-flow lanes to H.O.V. and optimizing freeways for trucks and buses.

    The tunnel system The Boring Company is developing uses 125 m.p.h. electrically-powered sleds, so the speed advantage is a consideration, and, conceivably, The Boring Company is also preparing for the eventual advent of the so-called Hyperloop, especially since the concept will likely require new advances in tunneling.

  • Ethan

    That’s why I said he revolutionized a single industry – rocketry, and used a comma to separate that from the kick in the butt he gave fully-electric cars.

    NASA is so culturally risk-averse and scared of failure when taxpayers control the funding, that I have doubts NASA would have answered as you say.

    Elon is willing to challenge conventions that entrenched market players are not. He’s willing to try and find ways to tunnel faster and cheaper. The competition seems to have concluded it’s impossible or impractical, and have given up trying to succeed.

  • Ethan

    Even Europeans and Asians have stories about being way to close to someone with too much perfume or needing a shower on public transit. More conventional public transit only solves some problems.

    The Model 3 is ramping up. The base model costs $35k, and that price can come down as batteries get cheaper. Saying that’s “for the rich” is disingenuous.

  • lake8456

    Great Article. Point on!

  • WQ4

    “The distinction between group vs individual size seems less important to me.”

    But it is important. Pods take up space. Tunnels represent very expensive space. Take a look at the ridership for the top subway systems in the world:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metro_systems#List

    Nothing Musk envisions takes us to a tiny sliver of that capacity. At best, he offers the possibility of fast and expensive transportation for a small segment of the population. Worse, this could be fast and expensive transportation for the elite, but subsidized by the public.

  • dawdler

    The main problem with Musk’s vision is not tunnels or big or small pods – it’s that it’s a vision of *private* ownership of transit. That’s what’s inefficient. Privately owned vehicles are a tremendously inefficient use of transportation capacity. They’re idle most of the time.

  • Matt Korner
  • Frank Kotter

    That’s so good, the up-vote isn’t adequate.

  • Louis

    The fact that a transit consultant and industry can’t come up with anything better than harping on the same old tired song and dance about the marginal benefits of mass transit is indicative of this archaic, monopoly industry unwilling and unmotivated to innovate and face the music. Transit ridership is falling across America. Musk is dead on about the pitfalls of mass transit, especially for the disabled, elderly, and youth who must suffer waiting at stops in the elements, not to mention the safety issue of street violence and harassment, especially directed at women. Instead of innovating, transit continues to encourage urban sprawl and shift resources from poor bus-dependent neighborhoods to suburban commuters with rail and express buses with nicer amenities. There is already artisanal transit, it’s called commuter transit and downtown street cars, AKA moving white middle class people around. While I certainly believe transit is underfunded, it also inherently lacks free market competition. At some point in the future, driverless vehicles will significantly reduce the cost of transportation for everyone and give the disabled, elderly, and youth comparable mobility options if we agree to subsidize it for them. There will still be mass transit, but mostly high-volume rail and BRT. Anything less would be a complete waste of money. Walker had his chance to convince transit agencies to adapt and innovate and has utterly failed where Musk, with one tweet, has shaken the entire industry from its sleep, perhaps to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep after sending off a few petty words to Musk for interrupting their slumber.

  • neroden

    It has to be large.

    Basically, this is straight-up economies of scale stuff. This is why trains (which can be *really* large) are the only real solution for big cities.

  • neroden

    (A) They can’t do car-like headways at those speeds, for safety reasons (you need an absolute safety margin where the train can stop clear of an obstacle); (B) the capacity is far lower than a decent light rail system; (C) it’s obviously much more expensive to build an evacuated tube.

    On two tracks, NYC runs subway trains every 5 minutes or so, carrying about 1200 people each. You simply cannot get anywhere close to this capacity unless you use *TRAINS*.

    If Musk figures out how to dig tunnels cheaper, that’s great. But put trains in them. Wasting tunnels on low-capacity pods is idiotic and financially non-viable.

  • neroden

    I hope he can tunnel faster and cheaper. Maybe he can. The major problem in the heavy construction industry is actually corruption, so if he tunnels at totally standard speeds and prices and *doesn’t add the corruption premium*, he’ll get a lot of business digging subway tunnels.

    Great! Now can he just abandon his delusional idea that 8-person pods can replace 1000-person trains? Because that actually *is* delusional. You just move a lot more people with trains. Period.

  • neroden

    No, the headways are limited by physics and safety. You have to be far enough back from the next vehicle to stop if the vehicle in front abruptly fails and stops dead.

    With this as the absolute headway limitation, you can ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS move more people with a longer train than with a smaller vehicle.

    You should and must dismiss the idea that you can move as many people with a smaller vehicle as with a long train. It’s actively stupid. It makes no sense whatsoever and you have to ignore basic geometry to make this mistake.

    I’m all for the Boring Company making cheaper tunnels. Put automated trains in them.

  • neroden

    They aren’t able to travel anywhere near each other — unless you want to have no safety at all, in which case you can do the same with long trains.

    Safe following distance is not negotiable. It is set by the ability to stop clear of a catastropically failed vehicle in front. Admittedly, most human drivers of cars on the road are reckless and follow too close, but that will NEVER be allowed with autonomous vehicles.

  • neroden

    Jarrett Walker did show that Elon Musk is an idiot. Quite impressive.

    Musk’s done a lot of impressive things in the past, but he just proved that on this issue, he’s a complete idiot with his head in the sand.

  • HN

    @neroden, the idiot Jarrett Walker only get 5 minutes of fame because he mentioned Elon Musk by name. Otherwise nobody pays attention to an unknown idiot.
    Before this did anyone knows who the heck is the idiot Jarrett Walker ? Did you know who is the idiot Jarrett Walker before this stupid argument ?

  • HN

    @neroden, Elon Musk doesn’t have any second to waste to talk to idiot like Jarrett Walker and yourself.

    I just wasted my 2 minutes response to your dumb post.

  • Ethan

    You’re confusing Loop, which is about 125 mph at normal atmospheric pressure, with Hyperloop, which is about 700 mph in a mostly evacuated sealed tube. This whole post and article is about Loop, not Hyperloop.

    Also as far as I’m aware of from Elon’s tweets is The Boring Company hasn’t decided or committed between using tires or steel wheels for Loop. If it uses tires, it can do car-like headways. Actually, if you look up “eddy current brake” you’ll see some train systems use them to slow much faster than ordinary brakes, which would also reduce headways, though probably not as much as tires. Either way, that’s how you get capacity comparable to light rail.

    What’s idiotic is how many billions NYC is spending on the Second Avenue subway compared to construction costs in Paris and the rest of the world. They’re spending many hundreds of millions of dollars per station. Creating stations underground anywhere in the world is a major expense of any subway project. By comparison, creating stations at ground level is dramatically less expensive. Which happens to be what Loop is planning.

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