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.

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

  1. So yet another of his ideas that only benefit the wealthy and the elite. Here’s a better idea. Build a system of tracks in tunnels, with stations spaced similarly to subway stations (i.e. about one every 1/3 or 1/2 mile). In each station you have a waiting track with very small one-person pods. Someone gets in, enters their destination station, and the pod enters the track and runs non-stop to the destination. One there, the person leaves the pod, and the pod waits in a queue for the next rider (i.e. you’ll always have enough pods in a station to deal with the influx of passengers.

    Advantages of this system include:

    1) No wait time.
    2) No intermediate stops.
    3) Higher acceleration/deceleration rates than conventional subways.
    4) Possibly much higher speeds than conventional subways, depending upon the guideway curvature and room around each station for acceleration/deceleration. Even if the pods can’t go faster than a conventional subway (say 50 to 75 mph), the fact there is no waiting time and no intermediate stops ensures the trip average speed is very close to the cruising speed.

    Disadvantages:

    1) Probably higher cost per passenger than conventional subways, although lower capital costs and labor costs could offset the lower capacity of the vehicles.
    2) Reduced passenger capacity compared to a conventional subway, especially at stations. It’s hard to see this idea working at a busy station which many hundreds or even thousands of passengers per hour.

    Instead, Musk is trying to shoehorn regular-sized conventional cars into tunnels as a form of mass transit. It can’t work for the same reason cars as the primary form of transportation in cities can’t work. There just isn’t enough space. Also, so far nothing has come close to steel wheels on steel rails for efficiency, speed, ride comfort, or safety.

  2. Yep. It’s like he’s invented roads, but under the ground. What a charlatan. Makes the monorail guy in The SImpsons look honourable.

  3. I guess the whole world * laughs at this now.

    *) except the fanboys

    From a PR point of view, this is a disaster.

  4. so instead of even just the linear induction tech we’ve had since The Outer Limits: Flight of Fear opened at Kings Island, we get car-wash-tier technology

  5. With an elevator no less to enter and exit. It sounds to me like he didn’t really bother to think any of this through.

  6. wait, if the cost is accuate at $10 million this would be a great advance. 14 foot is enough to hold a rail car, 8 foot square. The whole route D.C. To New York double tubed would be about 5 billion dollars, much less than any alternative, in fact about the price the the proposed new Baltimore tunnels. While I have some doubt the cost is accurate, tunneling at 10 million a mile would be a game changer for subway construction. I agree his actual planned use of the tunnel is silly, but

  7. Am I the only one who immediately thought of Harry Potter when I heard the phrase “vacant cabinet store”?

  8. Can you imagine being in this when an elevator breaks down? And everyone backs up in an underground tunnel, with no escape? Or do we really think the elevators will never break down?

  9. Unless I don’t get the sarcasm… If you have ever been in London and ridden the Tube… that’s about the diameter. And that gives an idea how a rail vehicle would look like.

  10. From what I understand the tunneling portion of a tunnel, even in NYC, is not too atrocious. The primary costs come for startup and stations.

  11. Welcome to London in 1890. You built a tunnel.

    If only we could come up with a track-based solution that could revolutionize underground transport in urban areas! When will that finally come?

  12. Or when those Tesla EVs have their batteries catch fire underground! With that head room there not much else will fit. No SUVs for sure.

  13. The cost is exactly the same as any subway tunnel of similar size. Of course a real subway tunnel would be 2x-3x larger minimally by modern standards. Plus the differential of what was left out: no elevator costs were included and they conveniently misrepresented the cost comparison to subways by including the cost of the subway stations which dominate subway construction costs. Similarly their elevators will probably dominant the costs of it. It’s a rip-off and a scam!

  14. This is like when I was in 4th grade and put off doing my science fair project until the night before it was due. I’ll bet Elon Musk had his mother out at 10 pm last night buying fancy green lights for the ceiling.

  15. Elon should focus his attention from this project to electric buses.

    LA has heavy congestion because almost everyone drives and there isn’t enough room on the roads. Existing mass transportation fails to get people to and from places they want to be quickly. Shared high capacity vehicles on a right-of-way with connections between population centers and high density neighborhoods is the answer.

    AKA what the city is slowly trying to improve with the rail and bus network.

    They’re trying to reinvent the wheel here.

  16. Add multiple redundant elevators at each station. This would also address the endpoint bottleneck problem. Not that I think the system as proposed is a good idea, but some objections like this are easily solved.

  17. To reduce or eliminate LA traffic congestion, build, lease, and sell 100% electric skinny cars with the ability to lane-split and park in narrow lanes like motorcycles. A Belgium study concluded a 10% transition to motorcycles (or skinny cars) would reduce traffic times by 40% and 25% replacement would resolve congestion entirely. https://newatlas.com/motorcycles-reduce-congestion/21420/

  18. JHC! One lane of freeway can move 2,000 cars per hour. With tge headways required for 120mph travel + the space needed for accel and decel lanes . . . can some math genius tell us hiw you get to more than 250 cars per hour through this thing?

    If this thing operated at peak capacity 24 hours a day with every car having 4 passengers it would move 1/5 what the Red/Purple Lines move in 17 hours while operating at roughly 1/4 of their actual capacity.

    This concept has always been a joke. Just stop and build a damn subway already.

  19. yes just have 60 elevators at each station so that you can actually get cars in fast and reach higher capacity. Wait, aren’t station boxes the highest cost component with existing subway construction?

  20. Or make a system of tunnels for bikes. That at least can move a decent number of people per hour, while offering freedom from weather, cars, traffic controls, and pedestrians. Even better, you don’t need elevators or huge cavernous stations to make bike tunnels viable. It may still not be a good idea, but it can be justified a heck of a lot more than building a system of tunnels which basically function as high-speed transport for the rich, everyone else be damned.

  21. Back in the 19th Century the first public transit (horse car) line in LA was built by a rich guy to get him to work faster. He went bankrupt. There’s a lesson here.

  22. What is the typical distance traveled for a trip in a car? I bet electric bicycles could fill a lot of trips in LA, but the last time I traveled there automotive traffic traveled much too fast on local streets. It’s a shame considering the great weather most of the year.

    If I lived there I would definitely own a motorcycle. It’s a no brainer. I use one here in NYC and it helps but out, but there the lanes are so wide it’s much easier to split.

  23. that could also move more people in a more efficient way than private cars could. oh wait its called rail. cant expect a guy who owns a car company to admit that though.

  24. When Angie, and quite a few from SB Chicago raised issue with Musk I really wanted to see what he had to offer first. It is now clear that they were dead-on: on a personal level, Musk is driven by 1. His quest for and success in acquiring wealth 2. his absolute phobia of anything ‘public’. 3. His idea that there is a technical silver bullet to any social challenge.

  25. Remember that even the Wright Brothers thought we wouldn’t fly for millions of years… It’s too early to make judgements.

  26. Yeah, Musk is being a complete “sanctimonious idiot” (his words) by failing to do the most basic homework on mass transportation. If he wakes up and actually reads some Jarrett Walker and understands it, he could do some good. So far, he’s being a sanctimonious idiot.

    I say this as a Tesla investor. Musk can be a real dumbass when he doesn’t do his homework.

  27. The aircraft engineers who built BART thought they could do a better job. They were wrong. They literally reinvented the wheel (made it cylindrical instead of conical). This is finally being corrected after 40 years.

    Reinventing the wheel is a sign of total dumbassery. Musk has been very successful when he *did his homework* — he researched everything about rocketry, including reading Soviet-era rocket manuals in the original Russian, before starting SpaceX. The founders of Tesla (Tarpenning and Eberhard) researched the business model of every single successful and unsuccesful auto manufacturer from the 1890s-1900s, and Musk listened to an expert on the auto dealership system when deciding not to do franchises, and JB Straubel is a battery expert.

    At the Boring Company, Musk has refused to do any of his homework, not even being willing to read or understand the basics which Jarrett Walker laid out. Therefore he will fail. Every major problem Tesla has had has come from not doing their homework.

  28. Musk’s tunnel is actually a slightly LARGER diameter than the original London Underground tubes.

    And yes, he hasn’t actually made it cheaper at all yet. The tunneling has always been the cheap part; the entrances and exits and junctions are the expensive part.

  29. Oh, I’ve studied Musk a long time. He’s honorable, he’s just being a “big idiot” (his words for himself, actually).

    I just want to sit him down for an hour and explain the conical railway wheel and how it enables high capacity and why high capacity is the only way to solve urban transportation problems. But he’s being a big idiot and not listening to anyone.

  30. No, it’s not. With one exception, Musk hasn’t tried anything new at the Boring Company; he’s tried a bunch of things which are already known to fail.

    The exception is the bricks. That’s a good idea. 🙂

    Anyway, that’s why you do your homework; so that you don’t repeat mistakes which have been repeatedly made in the past. Musk didn’t do his homework and is repeating those mistakes.

    Tunnels — great. Cheaper tunnels — great.

    Put steel rails in them. Use vehicles with conical wheels on the steel rails, which are passively self-stabilizing and so can go at very high speeds with very high comfort, and can also be articulated and go around corners without fishtailing. Attach a bunch of them together to get high capacity (high throughput). That’s a “train”.

    There are very specific “physics first principles” reasons to use trains, and Musk is being a “huge idiot” — he talks about physics first principles, but doesn’t even know those physics first principles reasons because he has not done his homework.

  31. A short Google search found average
    California commute distance at 9.1 miles and 28.9 minutes. As a long distance suburban Chicago commuter, I identify mostly with the super commuters described in this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/us/california-today-super-commutes-stockon.html

    Lane splitting motorcycles are great to reduce commute times for sure, but even in California, it’s clear most people strongly prefer the weather and road protections of cars. Thus, a skinny car matches both the protection and speed commuters most desire. Given Tesla’s advancements with manufacturing electric cars, it’s easy to imagine a world where commuters strongly consider skinny lane-splitting EVs when they come to market.

    Density is a great for many people to live, but a lot of people also like living in sprawling spaces. It’s time to transition away for side-seated cars to single-width cars along with transit improvements.

  32. I’m not sure the LADOT official you quoted understands the concept. It would not take dozens of tunnels. It could operate with as few as 1 lane in a ring configuration and allow nonstop travel from any node to any node. It is more akin to the flow of network traffic than traditional auto traffic. With trivial scheduling mechanisms and AI flow control, there is no reason for congestion at any point, and a single lane of tunnel would perform similarly to 4 highway lanes in terms of bandwidth.

  33. Yes. And for above ground, lane-splitting capable skinny EVs will reduce congestion, clean air, and will offer transit desert options in cities, and on highways. They also will help with parking space congestion since four can fit in a current side-seated car space.

    It’s all about width; the wider the vehicle, the worse it is for congestion. Like pedaled and motored cycles, it’s evident that skinny cars are better than side-seated cars.

  34. Obviously you have never engineered anything or brought you ideas to market place reality. If you had you would understand that reality is good at destroying the fantasies of people like you.

    Musk’s tunnels are the stupidest idea ever. I wouldn’t fund his efforts is all I can say. Oh and I do hope he succeeds but he won’t. He needs to go back to smoking weed and you need to get your head out of the clouds and into reality.

  35. This is a flaw that people like him have. Ironically exactly like Nikola Tesla before him, he has no idea where fantasy ends and practical real world capable idea begins. This boundry is often skewed in dreamers like him and must be challenged by an experienced support team.

  36. That is a lot longer than I would have thought, but if LA had more dense/mixed use areas there would be more amenities close by. An increase in walking and biking would be good for the city, even a small one.

    And though some people like sprawl, there’s more than enough of it in the LA area (globally really). The city needs to become more dense and mass transit oriented for its own well being, especially at hubs.

    The problem with skinny cars is that that they may be smaller than the traditional 2 seat wide orientation, but they would likely be too wide to lane split.

    Look at an ATV, good luck lane splitting with one. Even larger motorcycles are not as efficient to get through traffic. And in many places, you even have to squeeze your way past on traditional motorcycles and bicycles.

  37. Yes. There aren’t many that do, but one company built twelve prototypes that can all lane split on highways. They are all 100% electric. Here’s a link to a video of one of them lane splitting in California. You can see the shadow of the car as it’s driving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l79YPg7JZY The driver said he bettered Google Maps prediction of the trip by 40%.

    If one company can do it, than it follows that many companies could manufacture them. Seems to me a great option for Tesla since they’re great at manufacturing electric cars.

  38. Not sure how those scenarios are any different from what happens when elevators break (on subways) or when traffic gets backed up (on subways). Which are things that happen every day, and yet people somehow still get on with their lives.

  39. So much nastiness here. Musk may not be my favorite person, but can you think of any other billionaires who are committing their own money to try to address urban transportation problems? Most of the comments here are expressing anger that he didn’t do what the commenter thought would be the best solution in his or her own mind (“it’s not a bike tunnel! It’s not electric buses! It’s not another subway line!”). OK, fine, so maybe you’d like to put your own personal fortune towards those ideas? Sounds like he did this as a proof of concept, not as something to present as a final product ready to be sold to the public. And as far as I can tell, he did it without costing the taxpayers any money (cough, California high speed rail, cough). 150 years ago, running a train underground probably seemed like a crazy idea aimed at spoiled rich people. I can’t help thinking that so much of the vitriol being expressed here has more to do with envy (he’s a billionaire!) rather than anything else.

  40. There’s only one lane. When can the car come back? 20 minutes later? At noon? Or, later in the day when everybody’s coming back?? Will an SOV driver be allowed? Very nutty plan.

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