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In every city is a highway, on every highway is a long line of cars, and in every car is a person screaming internally about a traffic that just won’t budge. Capable of turning the kindest of hearts into the foulest of mouths, road rage is the inner demon we’ve all probably wrestled with and succumbed to at some point in our adult lives. Ask Elon Musk. He should know. A billionaire mogul responsible for enterprises such as PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, Musk founded The Boring Company in 2016 out of his annoyance with overcrowded roads, posting a tweet in December last year saying, “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” And dig he did.
The Boring Blueprint
Carving out a piece of land from the parking lot of SpaceX’s California headquarters, the South African serial hustler has already cut a trench (15ft deep, 50ft long, and 30ft wide) early in 2017. It’s just the beginning of an experiment, but the end goal should look something like this.
On what appears to be a dedicated side lane dotted with individual vehicle platforms, cars will be able to slide into the lane and roll into one of those metal sleds. The front and back barriers of the box-like platform will roll down for the car to enter, and close back up again when the car has parked itself on the platform. Following that, the automated electric sled will lower itself into the ground like a lift, and accelerate through underground tunnels at as fast as 130 mph.
In his vision, Musk imagines a 3D network of subterranean roads with as many as 40 layers of tunnels. If this works, a 16 km drive that typically takes about half an hour (or an hour with heavy traffic) could be whittled down to a remarkable five minutes. Technology advancements could also upgrade the sleds into pods, the tunnels into vacuum tubes, forming a Hyperloop that travels at a near supersonic speed of 600 mph. For now, Musk is looking to increase the tunnelling speed (by 500 to 1,000 per cent), and reduce tunnelling costs. He believes the trick is to bore narrower tunnels with quicker machines. What’s more, current boring machines have to stop intermittently to build tunnel walls. Musk could expedite this process by creating a machine that does both at the same time.
Dilemmas Beneath the Design
Putting aside the surfacesci-fi coolness of this idea, is it actually practical or beneficial? Well for one thing, the vehicles themselves remain stationary whilst travelling through underground roadways, so they could save gas emissions. However, the intricate system still runs on electricity and requires a massive supply of power. Renewable energy might be on the horizon, but there’s no telling how fast it can be incorporated into this underground project.
Even before the project can begin, The Boring Company needs the approval of the city council. The extensive endeavour will also cost billions of dollars, and face unsteady funding. If the state decides to contribute to the funding, it might cut funds in other more critical areas such as housing, education, and the environment – all of which take up the smallest percentages of the United States federal budget, as of 2015. When it comes to the actual digging, tunnel boring machines tend to be easily damaged. There have been a few instances where they get stuck, and remain stuck for months on end. Abrasive soil particles may break their blades, clay may clog them, and loose soil may cause tunnels to collapse and create sinkholes, which will affect the buildings nearby. So if this happens in a city as dense as Los Angeles, the consequences will be tenfold.
One has to be extremely cautious of underground utility lines (telecommunications, gas, electricity, sewage), as well as other existing underground passages, and ensure the soil surrounding those other things are not displaced or disrupted. You may think it’s not easy because there are just too many bits and bobs below the surface, but the real trouble is the mediocrity of underground maps. Oh, and did we mention construction clamour is the most disruptive form of noise pollution, even more so than the rumble of an overhead plane (because at least the plane doesn’t linger around)?
Getting Rid of Gridlocks
As for reducing traffic congestion, it’s possible the tunnels will make no difference, or even further harm the highway ecosystem in the long run. Think about induced demand, where the consumption increases along with the supply. Musk’s subsurface freeways may momentarily clear up the roads, but it’ll only lure more people to get their cars on the highway. The sanguine CEO could build more underground layers, but those will run out too eventually. Meanwhile, the world’s population will continue to increase every year.
At the end of the day, what Musk is building are simply more highways. If we trace back to the advent of major expressways, in particular the Interstate Highway System in America, they were championed and built by automotive companies (not urban developers) supposedly in the hopes of minimising traffic jams. Evidently, it didn’t work out. Except those firms would’ve made a profit from all those extra cars that started popping up on the road. The same mistake was made not too long ago on the 405 Freeway, where $1.1 billion was spent on creating more roads. Half a decade later, traffic analysts reported that the commute was a minute slower than before.
For these reasons, it might be more productive to focus on reducing the number of cars, rather than increasing the number of roads. A few pragmatic yet effective solutions that could use Musk’s investment include bicycle sharing, carpooling, telecommuting, rapid transit systems, and better trains and buses.
With such a high-risk venture like the underground motorway, it’s astounding how the 45-year-old visionary remains undeterred by the potential of failure and losing a truckload of money – an ordeal he’s went through in 2009 when he came dangerously close to bankruptcy. So while denigrators can call him crazy and even a little bit naive, we’ve got to admit he’s pretty darn fearless too.