Metropolis

Seriously, Elon Musk? Are You Kidding Me With This Tunnel? What Is This?

Huh?
Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s vision for the future of mass transit has arrived, and it’s amazing.

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Amazing that America’s favorite polymath, a man who is simultaneously launching rockets into space and working to abolish the internal combustion engine, could devote so much time and energy to a project that amounts to a Rube Goldberg machine for getting from here to there. (Underground. Tracks. Wheel attachments. Car elevators.)

On Tuesday, Musk invited celebrities and journalists into the mile-long tunnel his Boring Company has dug in Hawthorne, California, where they were driven in a Tesla along a track at 50 miles per hour. Like a car but without the freedom of movement, like a train without capacity, Musk’s creation is the transportation hybrid from hell.

From Laura Nelson at the Los Angeles Times:

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 car rode on two molded concrete shelves along the wall, which were so uneven in places that it felt like riding on a dirt road.”

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In Curbed, Alissa Walker describes Musk at his Muskiest, delivering off-the-cuff riffs about his plans for the project. Gone are the “skate pods” that were set to carry pedestrians and vehicles. (Remember when this project was all about public transit?) In their place are “tracking wheels” to hold the car in place.

One recurring joke in media coverage of Silicon Valley is the conceit that the nation’s recipients of venture capital money are merely rebranding tried-and-true concepts with sans-serif fonts and Facebook integration. (Congratulations Lyft, you invented a bus.) This is not an iteration of that joke. This is a bona fide new idea that is so evidently a downgrade in transportation and mobility it’s no surprise no one thought of it before. A car! On a track! Underground!

Remember the Nickolodeon television show CatDog, in which one lovable, crazy creature was composed of the front of a cat and the front of a dog? Imagine CatDog, but instead with the animals’ butts. Musk has melded the train and the car to create the transportation equivalent of butt-butt.

Musk claims the next step for his tunnel is transporting 4,000 vehicles an hour at 155 mph—or more than one car passing each second at twice the highway speed limit. Look, he’s the rocket scientist, but does that seem plausible to you?

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Even if that were possible, and every car were full, Musk would be moving 20,000 people an hour along a fixed track from Point A to Point B—about half what the London Underground’s Victoria Line can manage today. Which raises the question: If your goal is to move a large number of people from Point A to Point B, underground, well … maybe Elon needs to take a vacation to London.

As hard as it is to imagine such a system in operation, it’s even harder to imagine the network of light-speed elevator shafts that would be required to lift and let down a vehicle every second. Or the ramps required to allow those vehicles to accelerate to join the flow of traffic … or the means of egress in case of an accident … or, or, or. Why are we still talking about this?

There is one arena in which to hold out hope, however: that Musk has made a substantial advance in tunnel technology. He has not fulfilled his promise to tunnel faster—the 6,000-foot tunnel took 18 months to dig, a distance that a state-of-the-art tunnel-boring machine could clear in eight.

But he may have done so at a bargain price: a measly $10 million, he says. But that doesn’t include research, development, or equipment, according to the Los Angeles Times, and it’s not clear if it includes land acquisition or labor. (Musk has been using SpaceX to fund the Boring Company, to the consternation of some of the former company’s investors, according to the Wall Street Journal.)

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In conclusion, urban transportation is not rocket science.