Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging...— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 17, 2016
Musk wasn’t joking. At least that’s what he tells me as we sit in the SpaceX offices in Washington. For years he’s been thinking about tunnels—both out of a personal fascination and because they’d be an important component of the Hyperloop, the fanciful high-speed rail system he proposed in 2013. All the while he’s been quietly encouraging anyone who asks him about new business opportunities to consider digging for a living. “I think they were hoping I’d say some sort of iPhone app that they could make,” he says with a smile. “I would just say, ‘Do tunnels.’ It would obviously solve urban congestion—and we wouldn’t be stuck in soul-destroying traffic all the time.”
As Musk tells it, the L.A. traffic jam was a breaking point. Screw it, he thought, I’ll do tunnels myself. Within days of his tweetstorm, he acquired a domain name—BoringCompany.com—and appointed a leader for the project, Steve Davis, a senior SpaceX engineer who designed the guidance systems for the company’s first rocket. The barely sketched plan was to dig lots of tunnels for cars and high-speed trains. Mostly, Musk was going to approach it in his usual way: He’d figure it out as he went along.Max Chafkin
Congratulations, Elon, you’ve just reinvented the subway!
Sarcasm aside, the idea has surprising synergy with Musk’s other initiatives, namely electric cars. Tunnels have been a last-resort solution for automobiles until now because of the dangers of accidents and fires in closed spaced, where heat and smoke can quickly turn even minor situations into a disaster. There’s also the issue of exhaust gases that normally dissipate in open air, but would build up inside tunnels and make it dangerous to breathe without proper venting. With electric automobiles these complications are greatly reduced since there’s no fuel to burn and explode and no exhaust, so underground lanes would encourage the adoption electric vehicles, including Tesla.
Of course, in the long run, if transportation fully switches to electric vehicles on underground highways, the original traffic problem will return, only worse! — because tunnels are harder and more expensive to expand than our current system. The more sustainable solution, as always, is investing in public transportation and encouraging its use by urban population.
There’s a psychological component that’s harder to counteract though: some people resent being in closed spaces and many will find the dull, artificially lit interior of tunnels depressing, like long periods of overcast weather.
As crazy as tunneling sounds, Musk points out that it’s arguably less crazy than Silicon Valley’s go-to traffic solution: flying cars. Google’s Larry Page has funded two personal-aircraft startups, Zee.Aero and Kitty Hawk, and companies such as Uber and Airbus have skunk works. But Musk thinks flying cars are a dumb idea, at least for city travel. “Obviously, I like flying things,” he says. “But it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.” As long as the laws of physics hold, he explains, any flying car will need to generate a lot of downward force to stop it from falling out of the sky, which means wind and noise for those on the ground, not to mention debris from midair fender-benders. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you”, he says. “Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.”