Elon Musk is arguably the most successful bullshit artist working today. He lies through his teeth about taking Tesla private, the number of cars rolling off his production lines, the capabilities of the misleadingly named Autopilot driver-assist system, and his ability to build a whole new underground transportation system. As the SEC, DoJ, and NTSB work their way through the first three claims, Musk himself showed the press that, as usual, his tunnels are nothing like what was promised.
It takes quite a narcissist to think that after tweeting about traffic, they know more than every planner and transport expert in the world — but Musk’s cult of personality allows those who follow him to look past his obvious lies because they believe in him, no matter what. Unfortunately, politicians have also fallen for the con, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel already handed Musk a contract for a transportation system between O’Hare Airport and downtown — I hope he’s kicking himself now that he can see the sub-standard product Musk delivered.
The Boring Company’s transportation system was originally conceived as a system of tunnels below the city that would allow vehicles to avoid the traffic that plagues the Los Angeles roadways. It was a driver’s solution to a driver’s problem that will not accept the geometric limitations of urban space — that cars simply don’t fit in dense urban spaces where more efficient forms of mobility are necessary.
Musk’s experience of the city is different from the vast majority of its residents. He would never consider using public transit, as he told Wired: “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer.” He also thinks the electric scooter “lacks dignity.” For Musk, the only way to get around the city is a car and he won’t allow anyone to tell him otherwise.
Even though Musk presents himself as a visionary, his vision of the future is inherently conservative. He wants suburbs, but with solar panels. He wants cars to continue to dominate cities, but with batteries and a massive system of tunnels so they can move without traffic. He drapes himself in the cape of an environmental crusader, despite the growing recognition that a sustainable world will require far more structural changes to cities and transportation systems than renewable energy and batteries.
But even then, he fails to deliver. He constantly misses the production targets he sets for himself at Tesla, delivering a shockingly high number of vehicles with defects; the once-successful SolarCity faded after its takeover by Tesla; and, as the recent demonstration for journalists showed, the Boring Company is plagued by his tunnel vision.
Even though Musk presents himself as a visionary, his vision of the future is inherently conservative.
The reviews of Musk’s tunnel are pretty unanimous: this is not what he promised. Autonomous vehicles were supposed to pilot passengers through the tunnels at over 100 miles per hour (160 kph), but what the journalists really experienced was a ride in a Tesla with specialized attachments on the wheels to keep the vehicle aligned, driven by a Tesla employee hitting a maximum speed of 53 mph (85 kph) on what felt like a dirt road.
When facing criticism about the unmet expectations, Musk told the LA Times’ Laura Nelson that he “kind of ran out of time” and that the real thing would be “smooth as glass.” He elaborated with The Verge’s Elizabeth Lopatto, telling her there were “issues with the paving machine not paving smoothly.” Can you imagine LA Metro, the county transit authority, telling customers their ride feels like a dirt road because they ran out of time, but it would be better next time? I didn’t think so.
To make matters worse, Musk is calling his tunnel system “mass transit,” despite the clear evidence to the contrary. When he was was criticized for his comments about public transit, he promised that the Boring Company would prioritize pedestrians over cars and that there would be “skates” that would transport eight to sixteen people in the tunnels. But during the demo, he told reporters that idea had been abandoned; the tunnels would now be for cars and “densely seated” buses.
Urbanists were quick to point out that his tunnels, by focusing on moving cars, will never have the capacity of the subway, and in response Musk started throwing out potential ridership numbers with no evidence to back them. However, even the focus on ridership misses the bigger issue: how vehicles get in and out of the tunnels.
Musk says the vehicles will enter and exit through elevators, but refuses to accept how large of a bottleneck they will create. Press materials say that the tunnels will handle 4,000 vehicles per hour — a claim that seems wildly optimistic — but there’s no way the system will be able to get them in and out fast enough to hit anything near that target. Further, if there are that many vehicles zooming through the tunnel, it will be difficult to add vehicles into the lineup.
But that’s not the only exaggerated claim Musk has made about his tunnel. The premise of the Boring Company was to cut the cost of tunneling, and Musk claims the tunnel he showed off cost about $10 million — a figure that does not include R&D or equipment, and may also not include labor or property acquisition. And even then, the tunnel he showed off was clearly shoddily put together, and doesn’t include many of the features that would be necessary in a larger underground transportation network.
Tunneling also isn’t the only aspect of transportation projects that needs to be reined in, and often it makes up only a small piece of the larger project budget. Musk claims he’ll make tunneling ten time cheaper, but that has already been achieved in other developed countries. He also ignores how expensive stations are when they can make up an even larger portion of the project budget, and seems to imagine all of the elevators he plans will be relatively inexpensive.
In short, Elon Musk’s tunnel is a distraction. He’s trying everything he can to ensure the automobile continues to dominate North American cities, imagining dozens of tunnels below the surface to avoid getting stuck in traffic — even though no one who actually knows anything about transportation thinks his idea will work.
His promised cost savings are likely minuscule in the larger picture, and the transportation system he envisions has much lower capacity than a subway and other forms of mass transit. He wants credit for putting vehicles in tunnels despite us having run trains in tunnels for over a century and buses in them for several decades.
Elon Musk is not an innovator; he’s a narcissist who thinks he knows better than the experts in the fields he decides to enter. Most people wouldn’t get away with such hubris, but Musk has developed a cult following by making bold statements in a world paralyzed by a neoliberal curse and has received reams of uncritical press as a result.
But just as the media is slowly wisening up to the con, so is the broader public. Musk presented his tunnel as the future: a slick, superfast experience where we would enter a glass pod, descend into the street, and quickly end up at our destination. Instead, we got a Tesla that needed special wheel attachments driving through an incredibly bumpy tunnel.
It’s a perfect representation of Musk: promise the future; deliver a subpar iteration of the present.