- Elon Musk envisions a world where tunnels solve all our car-centric woes.
- However, cars full of tunnels are not feasible because of a lack of space and high costs.
- A journalist argues that Musk could use The Boring Company to make public transportation cheaper.
Elon Musk’s years-long quest to solve traffic by getting cars underground might be a pipe dream, but there could be one good thing to come out of it: cheap tunnels.
Daniel Knowles, a writer for the Economist and the author of “Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What To Do About It”— a book about how cars contribute to public health crises and fuel climate crisis released in March — argues that Musk could very well reduce the cost of tunneling for subways, which is a process that adds billions to subway development in this country.
The problem, he argues, is that Musk is not interested in that. Instead, the CEO and billionaire has his own vision for improving transportation. This includes solving traffic by moving transportation underground through car tunnels or building a successful hyperloop. However, that ambitious transportation project that involves moving people nonstop across long distances in high-speed tubes has yet to succeed.
“He is a car executive and wants to sell cars, and believes in cars, and lives around cars,” Knowles told Insider in an interview.
“I think he’s as car-brained as anybody else,” Knowles continued, referencing one of the key premises in his book, which is that America, and the world, is hooked on car culture.
‘I think public transport is painful’
As recently as March, Musk’s The Boring Company, a construction company dedicated to underground automotive transportation, has been touting tunnels to solve all the issues cars produce: noise, pollution, and never-ending traffic jams.
And Musk has often been explicit that traditional public transportation options, like subways, would not be a part of his vision. He even once called a public transportation expert an idiot.
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks,” Musk said at a Long Beach, California, Tesla event in 2017, while speaking about his preference for individualized transportation. “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? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
Musk’s complaints are not completely unfounded: Knowles’ book shows how underinvestment in public transportation in the U.S. has led to the system in use today, which is in decline as more people opt for cars.
This contrasts to places like Tokyo, Japan, where, Knowles writes, car use is among the lowest in the world because, unlike other countries, owning a car in Japan means expensive fees, and in bustling cities like Tokyo, parking spots are rare. As a result, public transport planning is put to the forefront.
This disdain for public transport that cities rely on and dislike of traffic formed the foundation upon which The Boring Company was founded. The tunnels that Musk would build would support both Teslas in tunnels and the hyperloop, whose development would be divided by multiple startups racing to complete the futuristic technology. “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging …” Musk tweeted in December of 2016, on the day the company was founded.
—Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
December 17, 2016
In 2018, Musk unveiled the first proof-of-concept Tesla tunnel under the streets of Hawthorne, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Musk said at the time that the drilling instruments his engineers fine-tuned were faster and cheaper than traditional drills.
Some engineers, however, were not hopeful about Musk’s plans.
“His machines that build tunnels look pretty standard. I’ve not seen anything from him that is different from what other people do except for the smaller diameter,” Herbert Einstein, a tunneling expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Forbes in 2018. “This really looks like more a vehicle development, rather than tunnel development.”
But years later, the proof-of-concept became a reality: In 2021, The Boring Company opened its first car tunnel in Las Vegas, a 4,500-foot loop under the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Failed plans and a traffic jam
Months later, a traffic jam ensued in the Las Vegas Convention Center loop after a Consumer Electronics Show convention.
“His thinking about ‘How do we solve traffic’ is really barmy. He’s seeing it as an engineering problem but with the basic assumption that everybody will be in a car. I don’t think it makes sense,” Knowles said. “When you consider the amount of tunneling and the amount of space that would have to be occupied for everybody to be able to move around a dense city like New York or Los Angeles without ever having to get in a traffic jam — the maths don’t make sense. It’s impossible.”
The Boring Company has hit snags since its inception. Musk’s grandiose plans have been slow to develop, and multiple loop projects in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore have been scrapped. In addition, the company has pulled out of contracts after promising other cities that it would solve their traffic issues.
Critics have slammed the projects as “scams” meant to drive business toward Tesla.
Knowles told Insider he’s driven a Tesla before and said that he does think they are “kind of” cool cars (he’d “rather you drive a Tesla than a gasoline-powered F-250”), but he says it’s just not possible to solve traffic with tunnels. And cars in tunnels will never be able to transport as many people as a subway train.
“I think I should have been even more cynical in my book, because I think a lot of what he did with a lot of his hyperloops and autonomy, some of this is literally an attempt to stop cities from investing in public transport directly by promising a kind of fake alternative,” Knowles told Insider.
There is evidence of this, too: A 2021 Insider investigation found that the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which had been considering an underground commuter train, was convinced by The Boring Company officials to accept a 2 1/2 mile car loop connecting the cities downtown to the beach.
Despite the criticisms, Musk and his tunnel plans persist: The city of Las Vegas filed a proposal in March to expand the tunnel system by adding 65 miles to the underground commuting system. The Boring Company has also put its controversial hyperloop plans to the side.
“I’m all in favor of tunneling,” Knowles said. “If you’ve got trains in the tunnels, I’m all for it.”
The Boring Company did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.