Elon Musk's Loopy Transit System May Not Deliver The Goods

His Las Vegas tunnel system can't carry as many people as he promised it would.

Test Tunnel for Boring Company
Los Angeles Test Tunnel for Boring Company. Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk has changed the world, with his electric cars, his rockets, and his flamethrowers. He is a man of vision. Sometimes, he is a man of tunnel vision, especially with his Boring Company, which he started because he got stuck in traffic.

The Boring Company is just completing the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) Loop, which connects the existing Convention Center campus with the new Exhibit Hall being constructed nearby. According to the LVCC Loop website, it is a 15-minute walk between the two buildings, which will take one minute in the "high-speed underground public transportation system in which passengers are transported via compatible autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) at up to 155 miles per hour. "

Or, as Elon Musk describes it, a bunch of Teslas in tunnels, rather than the fancy elevators originally proposed. The problem is getting to the Teslas in tunnels, now that there are stations instead of elevators. According to Mark Harris of TechCrunch, the design of the stations limits the occupancy to only 800 passengers an hour under the fire codes (other stations may hit 1200 people), whereas the contract with the Convention Center promises 4400 passengers per hour. Some say these fire code issues are overplayed but they are not the only problem limiting numbers.

Not only that, because the technology was so new, the contract was written in a way where the Boring Company gets paid when it hits capacity targets. If it doesn't hit targets there are big penalties: "For each large trade show that TBC fails to transport an average capacity of 3,960 passengers per hour for 13 hours, it will have to pay LVCVA $300,000 in damages. If TBC keeps falling short, it keeps paying, up to a maximum of $4.5 million."

Most of the TechCrunch reporting is based on the analysis of public drawings submitted for fire code review. But there are other, possibly more substantive issues that we have raised before. Harris writes:

"Even without the safety restrictions, the Loop may struggle to hit its capacity goals. Each of the 10 bays at the Loop’s stations must handle hundreds of passengers an hour, corresponding to perhaps 100 or more arrivals and departures, depending on how many people each car is carrying. That leaves little time to load and unload people and luggage, let alone make the 0.8-mile journey and occasionally recharge."
Turnaround loop
Turnaround loop.  Boring Company Submission

What you have here are a bunch of cars lined up in a row, one behind the other, with people getting in and out, which they do at different speeds as they gather up their CES loot bags and other stuff. Imagine getting out of cabs at the airport, except at the airport, you are not trapped behind the car in front, you can drive around them.

In a previous post about The Boring Company, I quoted transportation consultant Jarrett Walker, who accused Musk of Elite Projection, "the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole." Musk called Walker a sanctimonious idiot. But I am going to double down and quote Walker again:

"Musk assumes that transit is an engineering problem, about vehicle design and technology. In fact, providing cost-effective and liberating transportation in cities requires solving a geometry problem, and he’s not even seeing it.... When we are talking about space, we are talking about geometry, not engineering, and technology never changes geometry. You must solve a problem spatially before you have really solved it."
Underground Station
Underground Station. TBC/Clark County via TechCrunch 

The obvious geometry problem here is that you can only park so many cars for so long to get people in and out, and it takes a lot longer to slide into a car than it does to walk onto a subway or streetcar. Also, cars take up a lot of room. Musk is proposing another type of vehicle, more like a little bus that sits on a Model 3 frame, but who knows when that might come down the tunnel.

New York Shuttle
New York Shuttle. NYsubway.org

There is nothing new about people trying to use new technologies to replace subways; this was proposed in the 50s to replace the 0.5-mile shuttle that runs between Grand Central Station and Times Square, carrying up to 10,200 people per hour in its current form. I would have thought that a moving sidewalk would be a lot better in Las Vegas too, especially for just 0.8 miles. Of course, we recognize that the LVCC loop is the prototype testbed for the much larger proposal, the Vegas Loop, but it still is a cyberspace techno-dream solution for a nonexistent problem.

As mentioned above, The Boring Company started because Musk got stuck in traffic and he hates public transit. He told Wired:

"I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

So what is he building in Las Vegas? Public transit that goes from one station to another from fixed locations, where you probably will be jammed in a little car with random strangers. It actually doesn't sound like much of an improvement.