September 20, 2021

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Elon Musk’s The Boring Company Is Starting To Look Like A Dumb Idea

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What if you could bore a hole in the ground to get to work? Like a mole, you’d furrow through the earth, straight to your destination. And what if you could drive a car through the tunnel?

Seems interesting at first, but it also means sitting in your car even more. There’s barely enough space to fit the vehicle, so it’s claustrophobic. Also, there’s no way to use the bathroom.

If this sounds like a terrible idea, the reality is even worse.

Recently, Elon Musk showcased a tunnel in the Las Vegas area. It’s a 1.7-mile loop, called the Loop, that might eventually connect underground to the airport.

In case that sounds familiar and you are picturing a subway, that’s because it is exactly like a subway, except that you drive in a Tesla.

The idea for The Boring Company started as a tweet back in 2016 and it still feels about as fleshed out as 140-characters (at the time) would allow.

Musk often tweets out jokes and memes, some of them directed at specific companies. He even tweeted at one of my articles many years ago. This was one of those rare instances when he seemed to be joking but then actually created the company.

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My contention here is that Musk should have left it as a meme. I read this all as: “Let’s bore a tunnel in major cities at an incredibly high cost under the existing highway system we already use in hopes that few people will discover the idea or we’ll have to deal with congestion.” If you’re an investor and that’s the pitch, you’d run for the hills. More likely, you’d drive away without having to lower yourself into a tunnel.

That congestion problem is interesting. The business concept hinges on the hope that few people will use this single-lane tunnel. If they did start commuting this way and we all started boring tunnels under most major cities, you’d have to wait for your car to enter the single lane or pay extra for the privilege. Meanwhile, sane people would just use the existing highway system.

In my area, there’s a similar transport that leads from the metropolitan airport to a major shopping mall a few miles away. It’s called a tram. I’m sure there must be other technical reasons why The Boring Company exists, but it smacks of elitism. “I deserve my own tunnel and to drive my own car.”

The Boring Company refutes a few things on their site, including any comparisons to a subway: “Loop is an express public transportation system that resembles an underground highway more than a subway system. If a subway line had 100 stops, a train would typically stop at each station, so the trip between Stop 1 and Stop 100 would be long. In contrast, Loop passengers travel directly to their destination, anywhere between Stop 1 to Stop 100, without stopping at the intermediate stations.”

When I read that, I just think about being in an enclosed tunnel for way too long. The site mentions earthquakes, Covid-19 safety, and a few other things. The actual tunnel in Las Vegas, though, involves a fleet of 62 vehicles (the Tesla Model 3 electric cars), humming along silently. For safety reasons the cars can’t go anywhere near as fast as the suggested 125 MPH or previous 150 MPH estimate. It’s only about 35 MPH for now. Apparently, instructing the driver about where to drop you off is complex and confusing. Also, you read that correctly: Even though the Tesla is capable of driving autonomously and there seems to be little danger of driving off the road or hitting a tractor-trailer, there’s still a driver involved.

The FAQ posted at The Boring Company used to say 10,000 people an hour (the link is currently not active). The recent claim is that the tunnel can transport 4,400 people per hour around the convention center. I’d be surprised if that’s possible. First you need 4,400 people per hour willing to do that after the disco lights fade. The monorail system in Vegas transports about 5 million people per year using multiple cars and has been running for decades. If The Boring Company transports 4,400 people per hour all day, that would be almost 20 million people per year.

Maybe there’s more to it. No emissions? That’s true of many monorail systems. The cool factor? Not sure how cool it is to ride in a tunnel at low speeds. Avoid congestion? That is exactly what a train is for, minus the annoying factor of using individual cars that can hold fewer people and cost much more to build and operate.

It’s glitzy and high-profile, with a catchy and clever name that might be a little too prescient for its own good. Maybe it should be called The Ridiculous Company.

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