Chris Lowe – Exponential Investor (Great Britain) –
It’s a dangerous game disagreeing with Elon Musk. As regular readers of Exponential Investor will know, we’re big fans of his diverse and innovative projects.
Musk’s The Boring Company is literally a groundbreaking business: he’s getting into the tunnelling game. This is a mere sideline for him – but it opens up a new vision for urban transport.
Does Musk’s “Boring” vision bear scrutiny?
You may have seen the early promo videos. The first is a CGI mock-up of a Metropolis-like vision – albeit subterranean. It starts when cars pull up in special parking spaces. These turn out to be lifts, akin to those on an aircraft carrier. Each is topped with a giant, electric skateboard, which acts as a tiny, automated car transporter. You sit passively: whisked through a 3D tunnel network, at the speed of an inter-city train.
Anyone can pay for a bit of CGI, but this is no Tron-like fantasy. In another video, we see a real test tunnel. The sled travels so fast the tunnel lights look like strobes, even prompting an epilepsy warning.
But is this just nuts?
Let’s unpack what’s good and bad about this vision. The separation of cars from the urban landscape is a big bonus. Reductions in pollution and accidents are also huge benefits. However, creating a tunnel network does not necessarily lead to a good city transport solution. If Musk is to win over city mayors, he has to offer more than whizz-bang technology.
And here’s the problem…
Aside from large, open holes in the road, there’s a more fundamental issue. This is really a modification of a transport vision from the 60s and 70s – when capacity for cars was touted as the solution to congestion.
This was the era of the flyover, underpass, and urban dual carriageway. It was an ugly and unsuccessful approach. Burying such infrastructure hides the mess – but it doesn’t solve the problem.
Musk’s tunnels could be used in a variety of ways, but the video makes clear that it’s all about cars – and that’s a huge problem. Until the network is so comprehensive that surface car journeys become a triviality, such tunnels run the risk of increasing congestion.
Of course, the network could indeed become extensive. Then you could walk to the lift/station/thingy. But then why bother with the cars? After all, cars aren’t designed as subway carriages – and their surplus cost, bulk and weight is grossly inefficient.
The network’s difficult birthing process
Until this becomes a universal network, it could cause more problems than it solves. The easier it is to drive, the more people try to do so. The more cars you encourage to pile into an urban area, the bigger a congestion problem you have. Urban motorways paradoxically increase congestion – by clogging peripheral roads. Cars are the wrong solution – and burying them doesn’t necessarily improve matters.
Here’s a better idea…
If we look at London today, we can see the growing success of an opposite vision. We’ve ditched the solutions of yesteryear, and now invest in public transport, walking and cycling. This is not a hippie vision. London has seen a renaissance of the built environment in recent decades – underpinned by easy mobility.
Increasing urban density gives economic support for this regeneration. Relying on cars slashes the number of people who can use a given area of the city – choking its economy. Places like London Bridge support dense, vibrant concentrations of activity – which would be impossible with car-based transport. That’s a key reason why Milton Keynes and Stevenage are so bland by comparison.
So, what of The Boring Company?
Having the ability to dig tunnels quickly and cheaply could well be revolutionary. It’s certainly a huge advantage to be able to retrofit a transport system into an historic city – with the London Underground being a prime example. Making this cheaper to do unlocks enormous benefits for cities.
The problem with Musk’s vision is therefore nothing to do with cheaper or better tunnelling. It’s all about trying to cram more cars into cities. This is something that has been repeatedly shown not to work well.
Unfortunately, the main innovations that his The Boring Company has showcased thus far are all about cars. We’ve yet to see how he’ll be solving the fundamental problems of tunnelling – despite his promising rhetoric.
However, Musk’s recent TED talk showed that he is working to fundamentally improve tunnelling technology. He’s apparently seeking to improve construction speeds by an order of magnitude –great, if he can do it. Digging faster and cheaper really matters.
A second planned innovation is automation of tunnel wall construction. If his machine can dig like a mole, leaving a fully-functional tunnel behind, then it makes the construction process much simpler. Let’s hope that these innovations materialise as planned.
Despite the much-trailed advantages of better tunnelling technology, Musk’s planned narrow tunnels may be more important. Small holes are vastly more efficient to dig – as there’s just much less mud to move. By contrast, the London Underground is built around conventional-gauge rail tracks – without a particularly good reason. Narrower tunnels could give us a far cheaper and more extensive network.
Musk’s proven ability to wring out the last bits of performance from engineering systems means that his tunnelling technology will likely end up faster, cheaper and better than rivals – even if current details are sketchy. After all, modern tunnelling firms aren’t conceived with the idea of rapidly building city-wide urban networks, using purpose-designed approaches. Instead, they’re typically seeking one-off projects, to extend existing subway systems.
Musk is starting with a blank sheet of paper, and thinking big – this could lead to huge savings
Nevertheless, in its current guise, The Boring Company seems to be a boys-toys throwback to a failed error of transport planning. I’m not saying that the company can never make money, nor that it will never find sites where the technology could prove useful. But skateboards for cars won’t be the basis of a successful future urban transport system.
Musk may be a whizz at founding engineering companies – but this one suffers from a whole bunch of problematic social and system issues. I fear the current vision is a massive gaff for Musk– albeit a rare one. Let’s hope he ditches the cars soon – or this could be a very boring investment, indeed.
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