Elon Musk’s Tunnel Project in Los Angeles is Bad Joke

Photo: The Boring Company
Photo: The Boring Company

The media finally got a tour of Elon Musk’s plan to revolutionize transportation in Los Angeles — and it didn’t go well for Musk.

On Tuesday night, Musk unveiled a 1.14-mile tunnel completed by his Boring Company, which runs under the city of Hawthorne, connecting the parking lot of Space X’s headquarters to a vacant cabinet store. Laura Nelson at the LA Times wrote:

Musk had promised modified “but fully autonomous” vehicles at the unveiling, but the reality was more modest: a Tesla Model X that reached a top speed of 53 mph, manually driven by an employee who previously drove in the Indianapolis 500. The trip through the tunnel took about two minutes, illuminated by the car’s headlights and a strip of blue neon lights tacked to the ceiling. The Model X rolled on two molded concrete shelves along the wall, which were so uneven in places that it felt like riding on a dirt road.
Even Musk seemed embarrassed about it, telling the media, “We kind of ran out of time.”

The Boring Company still insists the tunnel could become part of a network that will be filled with self-driving cars that will race people in groups through L.A. at speeds of up to 130 miles per hour.

Map: Boring company
Map: Boring Company

But the company is also hedging. Earlier this week, it told Nelson that the tunnel is just an R&D for the Boring Company, which Musk says is aimed at revolutionizing the tunneling industry, one of the most complicated endeavors in civil engineering. It’s probably good that the company has offered an alternative explanation for the tunneling, because the whole concept of developing an underground road network is flawed. Musk’s tunnels are a lot like a subway, but with carrying capacity reduced to practically nothing.

Elizabeth Lopatto, a reporter with the tech publication, the Verge, wrote that Musk’s original plans were very much like a subway. Musk said the tunnel would carry “pods” with 16-20 people. But reporters arrived to find out plans have apparently changed from a public transit system to a private system for rich drivers.

It does seem strange, though, that we’re taking this ride in a Model X — because until this evening, there were going to be “autonomous electric skates” that zip passengers around at 120 to 150 miles per hour. These skates were supposed to carry eight to 16 people in a pod or a single car. Unlike with a more conventional subway, these skates don’t stop between where a person gets on and where they might get off; every skate runs express to one’s final destination.

Anyway, the skates have been canceled. “The car is the skate,” Musk says.

The "pods" Musk originally envisioned are apparently Out. Full video: Kinja
The “pods” Musk originally envisioned are apparently out. Full video: Kinja

The rollout was almost universally panned on social media and in the wider news media.

Some experts questioned whether the Boring Company had even succeeded at improving the cost of tunnel boring. Right now, it’s not altogether clear that it did.

Nevertheless, Musk told the LA Times he plans to continue with a 3.5-mile tunnel between a Red Line transit station and Dodger Stadium. And he hopes to have the whole system built out in time for the Olympics in 2028.

But raising the money, building political support and receiving environmental permits would be a staggering undertaking, says Scott Frazier of LA Podcast. He noted that the Boring Company abandoned plans to build a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass — which cuts through a mountain range between West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley — after learning it would be subject to a full environmental review process.

But even if the political and financial obstacles could be overcome, the biggest problem is the issue of access and geometry. L.A.’s highways are congested. Simply putting new ones underground doesn’t really solve this problem.

Perhaps autonomous vehicles could travel up to 130 miles per hour in underground tunnels, but there’s still a big problem: How to get all the cars down there.

Musk claims that self-driving cars will enter the tunnels via a special elevator inside a parking garage. But this design creates congestion at the front end while promising to relieve it on the journey. Drivers will need to line up to wait their turn on the elevator. If the tunnels were really able to deliver lightning fast commutes across Los Angeles, demand would likely be quite high.

One way to manage demand would be pricing. Musk has never explained what he would charge to use one of his private underground highways. But he would likely need to charge exorbitantly high rates to keep the tunnels and elevators flowing smoothly. A full build out of the concept could end up being a private uncontested highway system mirroring the congested public one for use only by a very rich few.

Hopefully, Tuesday’s press event will put the whole idea to rest.

  • cjstephens

    One way to make sure that new technology remains unproven is if you never test it. Until someone (like Musk) actually tries to build a test project for something like the hyperloop, we’ll never know if it is viable technology. Too many people here are mocking him for even trying. If the only solutions you are willing to explore are those based on existing technology, how do you expect progress to happen?

  • Daniel

    this is more like unveiling a Wright Flyer to mass hullabaloo at Burbank Bob Hope in 2018 while 737s take off and land behind the press scrum

  • Claude

    No, this would be reasonably safe, unlike the hyperloop which would send a wall of air at the speed of sound down the tunnel if it were breached. A wall of air at that speed would shred every car in the tube.

  • thielges

    Can you point out where I said only existing technologies should be explored?

  • cjstephens

    So you’re not condemning exploring unproven tech like the hyperloop? Then we’re on the same page.

  • disqus_dlP91vGbzC wrote

  • User_1

    All that’s happening here is that the discussion on moving people has gone underground. I guess who will be moved first would be the ultra ultra rich. That is until there’s an earthquake. Those still happen, right?

  • thielges

    Hmmmm… so it is “either/or”? You’re either a BS artist or logically challenged if you can’t see the shades of gray between those those extremes.

  • cjstephens

    Not sure what you’re trying to say here (maybe you hit “reply” to the wrong comment?). Otherwise I don’t understand why you’re throwing shade, since I just said I agree with you.

  • disqus_PZ32NhoTAO but

  • Frank Kotter

    It seems you engage in a bit of confirmation bias. Über was NOT vilified initially by transportation advocates as it was seen as a possible better use of the private auto but was, rightly, critiqued along the way. As it turns out, these skeptical voices have borne correct, no?

    Also, if you can’t find ‘proven’ solutions to move people faster, cheaper, better not based on a single engineer who is really good at raising money, then you are either being willfully ignorant or deceptive. Look to any developed country outside of the U.S. and examples abound.

  • cjstephens

    I don’t want to go too far down the Uber rabbit hole in a thread about Musk, but… I think we could both find early support for and opposition to Uber from transportation advocates from its early days. Have the skeptics proved correct? I’m not sure. So many of the early studies showing that Uber caused everything bad turned out to have been funded by the likes of the taxi industry (talk about confirmation bias!), and too many of Uber’s political opponents get huge contributions from the taxi lobby, so it’s tough to tell where the truth lies. My take: Uber had a great idea and developed superior technology, but it’s run by some really horrible people. I still hope that what Uber will become continues to solve a lot of the urban transportation challenges it has the potential to fix.

    As for Musk, I think you’re misinterpreting my position. I’m not saying he’s the only one we should listen to; rather, we shouldn’t ignore him or shun him just because he’s a billionaire. And yes, we should be looking to what works in other countries for ideas too, but we’ve been doing that consistently. As nice as it sounds to want to adopt, say, the TGV or Copenhagen’s bike network, those aren’t realistic solutions, because the US isn’t France and New York isn’t Copenhagen, and no amount of wishing will make it so. Is it so wrong to give an immigrant success story like Musk the chance to succeed?

  • Frank Kotter

    Build rockets with his own money: Sure
    Build cars with his own money: Sure
    Develop solar technology: Sure

    Claim that he deserves right of way and public funding to build existing technology but that this time it will work (despite the myriad listed reasons it is mathematically impossible) because it is private? Sure, make the claim! We’d be morons to fall for it though.

  • cjstephens

    What right of way is he asking for and what public funding? Serious question, as I am not aware of this.
    And I’ll stand by what I said about his endeavors not stopping the efforts of others. Is anyone actually saying “let’s not try building an HOV lane, or a maglev train because, look, Elon has this shiny new toy that will solve all our problems!”? I’m usually the first to include a link to the Simpson’s classic “Monorail” song, but I don’t see that happening here.
    Electric cars do solve issues: emissions, chiefly, and building a pathway to converting transportation over to renewable energy. His work on the electric car bleeds over into his battery business, which is also solves a big issue with renewable energy.
    And I’ve lived in NYC for over 50 years (and visited Copenhagen and Amsterdam, too). Those cities are different. Trying to make one into the other would be a disservice to both. Do I want a more bike-friendly NYC? Of course, but that isn’t the same as making it Copenhagen.

  • Frank Kotter

    There are no plans, the contract has been awarded, funding is not secure and we ALREADY have this: https://www.chicagobusiness.com/greg-hinz-politics/musks-ohare-express-train-line-federal-boost

    Endeavors not stopping others? Well, a company wanted to build a train – proven technology (I’m not an advocate of this design per se, but it is an improvement) but Chicago signed on with Musk to build a system which, again, only exists in the his own head. https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/14/17464612/boring-company-chicago-elon-musk-cost-estimate I can’t think of a clearer example.

    Oh, and electric cars solve one of the least significant detrimental aspects of personal travel: localized pollution, all the others remain.

    I understand the desire to find a silver bullet for the massive societal problem caused by the private automobile. I’m with you there! However, the only silver bullet is eliminating cars. The faster we realize this, the sooner we can start to make this transition.

  • cjstephens

    Thanks for the links about the Chicago project, which was news to me (a little NYC-centric, here, I guess). But I don’t think they support what you’re claiming: in both, Emmanuel insists that no taxpayer money is going to Musk. The whole point of the “DBOM” contracts is that the entire financial risk goes on the private entityt (here, Musk), and not the taxpayer. If Musk fails, it all comes out of his pocket, not ours.

    And I’ll have to disagree with your solution to our urban problems, “eliminating cars”. Not going to happen. Reduce? Let’s hope, but not eliminate. At the end of the day they’re still the best tool for many, many tasks. Don’t ask my 77 year old mother to ride the bus to her hip replacement surgery next week.

  • Robert Merritt

    Surprisingly enough, tunnels are some of the safest places in earthquakes.

  • Thomas

    Isn’t most/all of the metros owned by the state though? So why would billionaires get involved in the first place? (And let’s be honest, at this lvl very few billionaires could afford getting involved without breaking the bank). It seems until most transportation is privatized the private sector won’t get involved.

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