Elon Musk’s Better Place Moment: Why The Boring Company is both Boring and Stupid
Last week, Elon Musk shared details around his newest endeavor, The Boring Company. What he showed was an underground network of tunnels that is able to ferry around vehicles at speeds of up to 124 MPH on a track that doesn’t use the vehicles’ propulsion systems.
Elon’s claimed reason for starting The Boring Company is the experience of being stuck in LA traffic and finding it ridiculous that we’re limited to one level of transportation. His solution: to make a network of tunnels whereby we can drive at different levels, and, apparently, at faster speeds.
However, The Boring Company is a mistake similar to one made by Elon’s early rival — Shai Agassi. Shai founded Better Place at around the same time that Elon had begun getting involved in Tesla. They were the guys — masters of raising capital — that were defining the electric vehicle game. Better Place developed and sold a battery-charging and swapping infrastructure for electric cars. The system of swapping out batteries theoretically eliminated the risk of battery technology improvements stagnating over time.
Shai seemed to have the early successes, raising $900 million and striking landmark deals. Some of note include an agreement with the Renault-Nissan Alliance around vehicle manufacture and early cooperation with the governments of both Israel and Denmark to subsidize the sale of the battery-swappable EVs made with Better Place technology.
Ultimately Shai lost. However, it wasn’t for lack of vision or due to failed operation. Shai’s true failure stemmed from his bet against technology — the same path Elon is going down with The Boring Company.
Shai bet against technology. His assumptions that battery prices wouldn’t come down, that their energy densities wouldn’t improve, and that charging times would continue to take 10–100 times as long as gas fill-ups ended up being wrong. Shai’s big bets against technology failed — as is, historically, almost always the case.
Elon is making the same mistake with The Boring Company.
With The Boring Company, Elon is claiming that we have a problem of traffic and slow speeds and currently have no solution today — and no technological solutions in the pipeline. However, this is clearly not the case. The primary technological solution in development today is self-driving all-electric vehicles. With them, not only will traffic be a thing of the past, but legalized speed limits will no longer exist. In a world where all vehicles on the road are communicating with each other, there is a limited likelihood of there ever being consistent traffic.
In addition, on highways and roadways in which there aren’t crosswalks for people, the limits to speed will be solely technological — easily besting the 124MPH speed shown in The Boring Company’s promotional video.
Granted, building partially air-vacated tunnels will make fast driving more efficient. However, the energy used in building and maintaining such tunnel infrastructures will be greater than any energy saved from that efficiency — especially when vehicles of the future will be all-electric and powered by clean energies such as solar and wind.
Elon’s demonstrated use cases for The Boring Company seem to be this big bet against technology. This post also doesn’t get into the bet he’s taking against VTOLs and other forms of advanced transportation solutions that have the potential to reshape transportation as we know it. It’s a surprising risk taken by someone who has previously won primarily by betting on technology’s ability to succeed. However, if he continues with a vision of “brute forcing” solutions rather than coming up with intelligent and elegant technological options, he will lose.
Visionary or not, technology doesn’t care who you are or if you’ve previously succeeded. It doesn’t care if you happen to have a lot of money. Technology follows the most elegant and direct path and Elon’s newest company is everything but that — frankly Musk’s newest company is just Boring.