Two of Elon Musk's silliest ideas, together at last

Boring Machine
© The Boring Companhy

We do love Elon Musk on TreeHugger, from his shiny electric cars to his recycled rockets to gorgeous solar shingles. The Hyperloop, " transportation's mysterious new girlfriend", is another story, and his venture into tunnelling with the Boring Company? Just fundamentally wrong on so many levels, a practical failure because of the law of induced demand, and "a whole lot of infrastructure, energy and carbon to move someone in a big metal box sitting on a big metal skate in a big concrete tunnel."

But in a recent post, the Boring Company gives a much more detailed outline of Musk's plan, and there is some reason in this madness. It starts:

To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D, which means either flying cars or tunnels. Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight and won't fall on your head. A large network of road tunnels many levels deep would fix congestion in any city, no matter how large it grew (just keep adding levels). The key to making this work is increasing tunneling speed and dropping costs by a factor of 10 or more – this is the goal of The Boring Company. Fast to dig, low cost tunnels would also make Hyperloop adoption viable and enable rapid transit across densely populated regions, enabling travel from New York to Washington DC in less than 30 minutes

Actually, it doesn't actually solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic; the cars still have to come up to the surface at some point. Anyone who has driven in New York City has seen what happens when everyone is trying to get in and out of tunnels: massive congestion at either end. Going 3D, which cities have done for decades with elevated highways and tunnels, has not really made much difference either, because of the law of induced demand that fills up every road as fast as it is built. Elon says "there is no practical limit to how many layers of tunnels can be built, so any level of traffic can be addressed." But he still hasn't addressed where they will all park and how they will get around the surface.

Musk explains that his tunnel construction will be faster and cheaper, because he is significantly shrinking the diameter, from the 28 feet normally drilled for cars down to 14 feet. He is going to automate it, run constantly instead of drilling and then stopping to erect support structures, and go much faster. " A snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine). Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race. At a tenth the cost.

And the Hyperloop; this tunnel is not just for cities and cars. "if one adds a vacuum shell, it is now a Hyperloop Pod which can travel at 600+ miles per hour."

Then there is the issue of the dirt dug out, and the concrete needed to line the tunnels and provide structural support. Musk acknowledges the problem but has a solution that is cleverer than the special pants they wore to spread the tunnel dirt around in The Great Escape:

In typical tunneling projects, excavated dirt is shipped offsite to disposal locations. This process is costly, time-consuming, noisy, and can be environmentally hazardous. The Boring Company is investigating technologies that will recycle the earth into useful bricks to be used to build structures.... These bricks can potentially be used as a portion of the tunnel lining itself, which is typically built from concrete. Since concrete production accounts for 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, earth bricks would reduce both environmental impact and tunneling costs

Honestly, he has thought of everything; It is surprising that there are still skeptics. But there are some, like Jacob Silverman writing in the Baffler, wonder why anyone takes it seriously.

The answer might be that a rich man’s hobby can have serious consequences for the rest of us. And there’s little doubt that a credulous media will do Musk’s promotional work for him. True to form, the tech press has gobbled up Musk’s bizarre plan without raising a single eyebrow in skepticism. Every time Musk posts a new video on Twitter or uploads a photo of a boring machine to Instagram, this material—advertising for a mogul’s novelty startup—is immediately repurposed for enthusiastic posts on TechCrunch, Business Insider, The Verge, and other content-hungry tech-biz chroniclers.

tunnelsTesla tunnels/Video screen capture

Clearly, Silverman doesn't read TreeHugger. And actually, the Verge is quite critical, posting articles like Flying taxis or futuristic tunnels won't save us from the misery of traffic. Andrew Hawkins of Verge goes so far as to say:

... its mostly bullshit. Sure, the technology exists. We’ve been digging tunnels since the late 19th century to bypass our choked surface streets. And the idea of vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which is what has Uber so jazzed these days, is still in its infancy, but experts agree could be due for a breakthrough. These are not new ideas. But when you start to look below the surface, it becomes clear that they’re not designed to benefit most of us who experience the daily torture of traffic. Just the people who can afford it.

Silverman also mentions the planning issues of congestion at the ends, and the concept of induced demand. He talks to urban planner Andrew Mondschein, who points out that congestion isn't always such a terrible thing, that it is often the result of a city's success. He concludes:

Yes, there is something enticing about the grandeur of Musk’s plans. And yes, we should still be wary. At a time when cities are hobbled by budget deficits and mass transit is losing out to Uber and Lyft, a billionaire’s sci-fi-tinged scheme to eliminate traffic can capture the adoration of the media, the ear of city planners, and the imagination of the rest of us. Even Mondschein, the urbanist, saw some appeal in the Boring Company. But he was also careful to sound a note of caution: “It’s hard to say whether it’s a utopian or a dystopian vision.” Tech utopia or class dystopia? A careless ping-ponging between the two seems to be Musk’s specialty.

There are many things to love about Elon Musk, his genius and his drive. Some people get stuck in traffic and they just sit and swear. Others like me, get a bike. Elon Musk has much bigger dreams and visions. But sometimes, perhaps they are a distraction rather than a solution.

Two of Elon Musk's silliest ideas, together at last
It turns out that the tunnels drilled by the Boring Company may well be used for the Hyperloop.

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