How Elon Musk's boring idea could work and save the planet

The Boring Company is flawed, but if Musk listens to reason, it could change the world

The Boring Company could forever change how we travel around cities, but not as Musk thinks it will. We take a look at the whole story, as it could fundamentally transform our society in the decades to come.

First, the news: Elon Musk is boring for the planet

Elon Musk's Boring Company will start, well, boring near SpaceX headquarters as a first step to creating an underground mesh of tunnels through which cars could speed up to 124 mph, as shown in the video below.

Musk's plan involves vertical entrance and exit platforms situated on (or near) current roads. Upon reaching the underground electric transport system, the platforms would go at their destination with speeds up to 124 mph. Everything would be managed by an automated system, thus dramatically reducing pollution, transit times and accidents inside the city.

1 mile of underground tunnel costs up to $1 billion, according to Musk. Therefore, The Boring Company's first goal is to enhance boring machines' efficiency and drastically reduce costs through better use of their capacity and reducing the size of the tunnels.

 

 

Critics were quick to point out that Musk's project is not economically feasible (it's incredibly hard to obtain permits for underground tunnels within the city), and that the whole idea is wrong, as cars would have to wait in line to enter the platforms and use the elevators, clogging the streets.

As such, it seems that The Boring Company has even bigger obstacles ahead than Tesla or SpaceX had in their time. Musk is not a guy who starts projects without finishing them, though, so just dismissing his idea would be plain wrong. Hear the man speak about his plans:

What problems stand in the way of Musk's boring spree?

Making 12 feet-wide tunnels underground looks like a better idea than boring 25-50 feet-wide ones, as current standards request for cars. 

Putting one tunnel above the other also reduces the amount of red tape you have to fight until your project is approved. Also, entry and exit points could be like today's underground car parks (and not like displayed in the video), allowing for a longer queue, thus solving the issue of gaping road holes and traffic jams in the middle of the city.

But it still is almost impossible to get approval for boring underneath existing neighborhoods. Also, putting 3-4 large tunnels one over another is not an easy engineering task, especially when boring under existing structures.

Last but not least, when transporting cars you need an escape tunnel and sophisticated ventilation systems in order to prevent fires and allow people to reach safety in case of an accident. 

This practically doubles the effort and costs, no matter if the system is dedicated to BEVs (battery electric vehicles), FCEVs (fuel cell vehicles) or combustion-based cars. Any system that transports flammable cars underground needs to meet very high safety standards.

The list of problems is actually longer than this, and it would seem that crossing the city at 124 mph will remain a dream for decades to come. Unless we recalibrate our expectations.

What The Boring Company will NOT manage to do

When people in 2100 look back, they should wonder how stupid could humans be just 80 years ago, wasting and polluting so much space and resources, and spending up to 50% of their income just to get to work and back. 

Right now, we're driving around in between 1.2-2 tons of expensive metal just to move our 80 kilos of meat and some luggage, due to strict safety regulations and structural issues. Our cars have the potential of accelerating in 2.5-10 seconds to 62 mph and reaching speeds in excess of 110 mph, but we're forced to move at a snail's pace within cities, at an average of 26.8 mph in Los Angeles, for example. 

Also, 5-seat cars carry an average of 1.55 passengers, while 5-7 seat personal trucks average 1.84 - still a very inefficient way of moving people around while using less than 30% of the transporting capacity. The same goes with transporting goods: at least half of in-city goods transport is done with less than half-full trucks. If we also take into account that most cars sit idle all day long until people start going back home, the overall transport capacity used is less than 5%.

Boring tunnels for individual cars would actually increase the number of vehicles in traffic because every mph gained through this mean of transportation will entice others to use it. As we already wrote, just dreaming about electric cars solving the pollution problem doesn't save the planet, it can make it much worse in reality.

This is a lesson many cities already learned, and it's surprising nobody told Musk about the notion of induced demand, which in transport can be summed up as: build more roads (or tunnels), and more cars will follow. And no, autonomous driving will not solve gridlock, as more and more people will decide to use them on the same clogged roads. It has the potential of diminishing it, but not solving it entirely.

There's also the problem of costs: at rush hour it may make sense to use the underground (and more expensive) system. But outside congestion time cars will still use existing roads. It would be very difficult to have a profitable network of tunnels if they're used only 10-20% of the time.

There's also the problem of pollution, claiming millions of lives every year around the globe. Elon Musk's electric cars would diminish and almost eliminate it at street level. But just replacing internal combustion or electric propulsion with an underground electric transport system will not solve the efficiency problem mentioned above.

Bottom line: we use heavy and polluting vehicles at less than 5% of their transport capacity to move very slowly through congested cities and unprofitable infrastructure. This is a huge waste of money, time, material resources and potential. But there's more.

Six million cars in Los Angeles use over 1.3 billion square feet or 30,000 square acres (120 million square meters or 120 square km) just for parking. Roughly the size of over 22,000 football fields. At rush hour, there is simply not enough space for all these cars to flow. Not to mention that most American cities are designed for cars, not for people, thus drastically diminishing their community potential.

An underground system would redistribute traffic more evenly, but would still mean that all these cars would have to resurface on the ground, creating bottlenecks. And not a single one of the above problems would be solved by moving individual traffic underground.

How The Boring Company could actually save the planet

Elon Musk wants to save the planet, but he also might do it wrong. Especially with his insistence on individual electric cars as a transport solution for around-the-city driving. To truly change the world, you need to imagine a car-free future, especially within towns. 

(Rest assured, as coming from a car guy: cars would still remain the preferred way of travel outside cities, where you can really use them close to their capacity. But inside towns, they're pointless.)

First of all, let's solve the space problem. What about reducing the size of current cars to 1/3 of their current size? Of course, you'd end up with transport pods rather than full-blown cars, but imagine traffic is only 30% of what you currently see, even at rush hour! Wouldn't this be the solution we all want?

You'd have individual one-person pods, two-person pods, four-person family pods and so on. Freight pods would also have predefined but modular dimensions.

And here is where the Boring Company could fundamentally change things. 

For starters, to reduce a car's size, you have to discard safety structures. You can't do this if the cars in question travel above ground, even if they're autonomous. But if they're underground and are carried by a fully automated system, there's no need anymore for elaborate crumpling zones and hardened steel reinforcements. 

Reducing car size will also greatly reduce weight. Because there's no risk of crashing anymore, steel could be replaced by lighter materials, and the only solid thing would be the platform upon which the pod rests. This is especially useful for freight transport: a 200 kg platform would be enough to carry up to 500 kilos worth goods, unlike today, when you need 2,000 kg cars to carry the same amount.

You would still need a separate escape tunnel, even if pods would not be flammable, just for enhanced security reasons (power outages, terrorist attacks etc.). But everything would be scaled down because it's a people-centric system, not a car-centric one. You could also use above-ground systems that don't interfere with pedestrian traffic. And look awesome.

Also, the propulsion system would be full-electric and bottlenecks will simply not exist, as everything is streamlined by the centralized network. Even if large numbers of people/pods will flock to the same locations at the same time at rush hours, it would still be much faster than the current road system with all its crossings and traffic stops.

Bottom line: we would end up with individual, comfortable, safe and clean transport pods. If the underground tunnels will be dug under the current road network, it would also greatly diminish red-tape issues. 

A single 12-feet large tunnel would enable the rapid transport of four times more individual, family or transport pods than currently envisaged by Musk. No need to dig several expensive tunnels for transporting the same amount of people and goods.

There's also the question of efficiency. Not only it's (much) more efficient to use (much) lighter vehicles, but reducing their size will also save a lot of space, and streamlining traffic and eliminating stops at crossroads will greatly improve the overall flow. No more spending hours in traffic jams - you'd reach your destination much faster. Here, Elon Musk's expertise could be fundamental to changing things.

Last, but not least, individual pods would be used all day long, and not sit idle for 8-9 hours until people come back home. Freight pods would seldom go empty for long distances, as the same transport pod can be used for delivering cans, then taking empty bottles to a recycling facility and then coming back with raw materials for a packaging facility, for example.

But for all this to happen, you need an efficient boring technology, coupled with a completely new transportation system able to use artificial intelligence and the newest materials for transporting people and goods over short or medium distances. And here come Musk's Hyperloop and Boring Company.

Somebody call Musk: you have the resources to do this

It's not easy to adapt a city to this kind of transport. You need to dig under the big boulevards, to connect shops, public spaces, skyscrapers, residential areas, and so on. But it's at least four times less expensive than digging tunnels for car-sized platforms. And it's much more comfortable and safe than current public transport.

Of course, for suburb residents, you'd need park & ride spaces where they can leave their cars and take this system through the city.  You also need a subscription model and several levels of comfort. You also need good connexions with major transportation hubs, like airports and subway stations.

The roads above would be freed from most of the traffic, therefore making way for more pedestrian spaces. Of course, new road taxes would be in place, forcing or persuading people to use the underground system. 

Public transport solutions should always complement the individual transport system, as they're the ones that are most efficient. The city could be returned to its residents, and in the near future cars could be banned from street level altogether. 

Bottom line, if Elon Musk wants to move people and freight faster, cleaner and more comfortable around cities, he has to abandon the idea that everyone will continue to use large boxy cars, even with an underground system. That's simply not possible. 

On the contrary, this individual/family pod system could be several times cheaper, and would certainly be much cleaner and comfortable than every other alternative. 

For us car fanatics, there would always be the joy of driving on winding roads or on the track. The faster we abandon the idea of driving through town, the better.

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Adrian Mihaltianu

Our editor at large started writing about cars only after getting a taste for extensive road trips all across Europe, more than ten years ago. Cherishing the road more than the car, he finds it somewhat difficult to fall in love with today's supercars, but will go on talking for hours about n... Read more


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