For the 175,000 tech fans descending on Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show this week, one of the must-see attractions is located not among the acres of trade-show booths, but just outside the convention center.
In November 2019, Elon Musk’s Boring Company started work here on a project for its first paying customers: an underground transportation system that will carry passengers less than a mile from one end of the convention center to the other. Eager CES attendees hoping to catch a glimpse of the action can peek through the fence at the construction pit, where tunnels are in the process of being bored as part of a $48.68 million contract with the city’s convention and tourism authority. (Don’t worry: If you’re not at CES, there’s a livestream.)
“I think that 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ll look back at this as a Kitty Hawk–type moment,” said Steve Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, at the tunnel’s November groundbreaking. “This technology has the ability to change transportation not only here at the convention center, which is important to us, and here in Las Vegas, but around the country and around the world.”
Yet exactly what “technology” is being pioneered at the convention center site is still up for debate. Although the project is being publicly dubbed as the “first underground people mover,” what’s being built appears to be more of a mechanism for giving one-minute test rides in Teslas.
The Vegas tunnel is the first commercial application of what Musk has dubbed “Loop,” defined by the Boring Company’s website as a “high-speed underground public transportation system in which passengers are transported via compatible Autonomous Electric Vehicles (AEVs) at up to 155 miles per hour.”
According to documents filed last year by the Boring Company, the Vegas Loop is intended to move an expected 4,400 people per hour in 16-passenger autonomous vehicles through two 0.83-mile-long, 14-foot-wide tunnels. The system is planned to be open for testing by November 2020 and in operation by next year’s CES.
But since the Vegas contract was awarded in May, Musk has made public statements that contradict key elements of the original Loop proposal, including the type of track, speed, and vehicle type.
The most recent renderings from the Boring Company no longer show the 16-passenger public transit vehicles that Musk has promoted since 2017, and instead use what appear to be Tesla Model 3 cars that hold at most five passengers.
The vehicles also won’t be going 155 mph, as has been widely reported. Because the vehicles will travel between three stations along the 0.83-mile route, they will only reach speeds of up to 50 mph in each 0.4-mile segment.
And last month, Musk confirmed that the tunnels being dug by the Boring Company were indeed “road tunnels,” not transit tunnels at all, where the vehicles would travel on tires, not tracks. “Really, just an underground road, but limited to EVs (from all auto companies),” he tweeted.
As journalists in town from all over the world heap social-mediated praise upon his plan to “solve traffic,” is Elon Musk actually building a solution to anything at all?
Almost three years ago, in April 2017, Musk took the stage at the TED conference to propose an idea to eliminate the “soul-destroying traffic” he experienced on his own Los Angeles commute.
Musk’s plan at the time was to lower cars underground via elevator onto electric “skates” that would whisk vehicles at 130 mph through a series of tunnels to their destinations. Musk revealed he’d bought “some second-hand machinery”—a tunnel boring machine previously used to install sewer lines in Northern California—and was already digging beneath the Space X headquarters near Los Angeles. The TED audience clapped enthusiastically.
But when transportation planners pointed out that the only way tunnels relieve traffic is by moving high-capacity vehicles, Musk went on the defensive. At a different conference, he bashed public transportation—where riders must share space with “a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer”—and called an influential transit consultant an “idiot.”
Then, in June 2018—about six months after his dustup with advocates—Musk abruptly changed his tune: The Boring Company’s plans would be adjusted to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over cars. “Will still transport cars but only after all personalized mass transit needs are met,” he wrote on Twitter. “If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”
But Musk has provided no explanation for how, exactly, that would work.
The rendering Musk often provides as evidence that the Boring Company’s transit system would serve pedestrians and cyclists is a 16-passenger autonomous electric vehicle, which, according to the Boring Company, will be made with the modified chassis of a Model X, Tesla’s SUV. The vehicles, which reportedly could be platooned in convoys, look more like components of an airport people mover than like cars.
“Elon Musk’s tunnel idea is sounding more like public transit every day,” I wrote in 2017.
But if you look at that story today, the images of that 16-passenger vehicle have all vanished. That’s because The Boring Company’s Instagram account has been wiped: There are only three remaining images, and every post made before December 2018 is now gone.
At the Boring Company’s first test tunnel opening for Loop near LA in December 2018, reporters boarded unmodified five-passenger Tesla Model X SUVs to ride through the tunnel, not 16-passenger vehicles. At the press conference, Musk said these SUV vehicles could also serve pedestrians and cyclists. A journalist asked if the vehicles might need bike racks for cyclists. “Yeah, sure,” replied Musk.
Later that night, Musk reiterated on Twitter that the tunnel systems would have “continuously circulating cars dedicated to pedestrians & cyclists.”
But each tunnel is only 14 feet wide, allowing only one vehicle to travel at a time. It’s difficult to understand how any vehicle serving pedestrians and cyclists might be given priority over cars.
In June 2019, Musk hinted the Boring Company might release a traffic model showing how vehicles would move through the Loop, illustrating how pedestrians and cyclists might engage with the system. The company has not publicly released any such model.
There was one other change to the Loop system at the December 2018 test ride in LA. Instead of the electric skates Musk had promised, a set of small retractable wheels locked the car onto a paved track, turning Tesla SUVs and sedans into what Musk called a “rail-guided train.”
“Previously we were going on an electric skate, and the skate would carry the car, but that’s a more complex thing,” Musk said.
But by May 2019, Musk wrote on Twitter that both the electric skate and wheel guide ideas were dead. The vehicles would travel autonomously at speeds up to 130 mph on their own tires through the tunnel, he said. In June 2019, the Boring Company released video of a Tesla Model 3 driving through the now-paved test tunnel unassisted.
When asked on Twitter why he changed the plan, Musk replied, “This is simple and just works.”
Musk is well-known for abruptly changing product features. But with the elimination of the electric skate and platooning capabilities, is Loop technically public transit? Is it even new technology? A five-passenger vehicle driving people less than a mile through a 14-foot-wide hole in the ground sounds more like a valet service in a parking structure.
This doesn't matter to media outlets like Reuters and CNN, which in the last two weeks have dutifully reported, based on no new information besides Musk’s tweets, that the Vegas transit system would be “hopefully fully operational in 2020,” and people would travel 130 mph or 155 mph through it, “from the convention center to the Strip.” (The convention center’s new building entrance is on Las Vegas Boulevard, where the Strip is located.)
These publications also reported that other Boring Company public transit projects are moving forward, which is not the case.
In 2018, the Boring Company was awarded a $1 billion bid for a proposed 18-mile tunnel to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. But Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has not advanced the bid after Chicago officials who attended the opening of the LA-area test tunnel expressed doubts about the project.
And a final proposed tunnel from Washington D.C. to Baltimore is not a transit system—it’s now being billed as two 35-mile tunnels for electric vehicles that will move only 2,000 people per day. (Virginia officials who visited the Boring Company also came away unimpressed.)
In the final weeks of 2019, Musk revived his tunnel vision on Twitter, conducting a poll asking if people wanted tunnels to “solve traffic.”
When the poll was completed, Musk tweeted the results: “As expected, 69% want car tunnels. Stop whining, subway Stalinists, the people have spoken.”
He later deleted the tweet. But why? Is it because he called them “car tunnels”? Maybe because that’s what they actually are—they’re tunnels being used to sell cars.
The federal tax credit offered to buyers of electric vehicles is phased out once an automaker has sold a certain amount of cars. Tesla has now reached that point. Its tax credit went from $7,500 per car to $3,750 on January 1, 2019, then dropped again on July 1 to $1,875 and expired completely at the end of 2019.
Tesla needs new, wealthy customers. And every time Musk tweets about car tunnels, he drums up instant international exposure. Amidst a flurry of Boring Company news in 2019, Tesla saw record-breaking sales, even as electric vehicle sales dipped slightly overall.
It’s not that we shouldn’t want Musk to sell electric cars. But more cars will not end traffic. Cars are traffic. If Musk actually wanted to solve traffic—and truly wanted pedestrians and cyclists go first—he’d make tunnels for dedicated, high-capacity electric vehicles. A true “zero-emissions, high-speed, underground public transportation system,” as the Boring Company bills the Loop.
The bigger problem, however, is this: Each time a city (or a reporter) shows interest in Musk’s tunnel-boring scheme, it helps him sell more cars. And each time city leaders promote one of his fantastical ideas—tiny tunnels! with autonomous vehicles! platooning!—it does serious damage to the real-life solutions being proposed by experts that will actually make life better for their residents.
I keep saying this. No one seems to be listening. Because you can still read statements about the tunnels like this one, published in Popular Mechanics last week: “In about a year we should get a better sense of just how tunnels for individual EVs may or may not be able to solve traffic problems in cities.”
The Boring Company’s Vegas tunnel might seem mostly harmless in a city paved with moving sidewalks. But instead of putting people in cars to make a trip that takes 20 minutes on foot at most, imagine what impact $50 million could have made on reducing vehicular trips to and from the convention center. What if the tourism authority had made that level of investment in the city’s bus system to not only help visitors get around, but also to improve the commutes for the 383,000 people who come to work there every day?
But that’s not who Musk’s “public transit” system is for. And we have to stop pretending that it was—or that it ever will be.