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Somehow Elon Musk’s Tesla Tunnels Are Even Less Useful Now

The Boring Company’s “public transit” system has become a valet stand in a parking garage.

A rendering of Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels in Las Vegas, Nevada that looks like an underground parking garage shot from the perspective of an escalator descending into the space.
“Coming soon”: Elon Musk shared this new look for the Boring Company’s Las Vegas project.
The Boring Company

Here’s one way to tell when Tesla’s earnings calls are scheduled: Elon Musk gets on Twitter to post a fanciful rendering of a Tesla-adjacent project to boost the company’s stock price. This week, just before yesterday’s call, it was a new look at the Boring Company’s Las Vegas tunnel transit system, which, in typical Musk fashion, is somehow more visually underwhelming than the previous version and also manages to contradict much of what he’s previously said about it.

The Vegas Loop, for which ground was broken late last year, is the first — and, so far, only — paying project for Musk’s tunnel-boring outfit, which has been doing test digs outside Los Angeles since 2017. The two 0.83-mile-long, 14-foot-wide tunnels in Las Vegas will allow vehicles to travel the length of the recently expanded convention center, shortening what might be a 20-minute walk to a one-minute ride (although that doesn’t include waiting or boarding time).

The cost for a single mile of underground road? $48.68 million, paid for by the Convention and Visitors Authority with local hotel taxes, to move an infinitesimal percentage of the populace, without making the slightest dent in traffic, or carbon emissions, or getting anybody to or from work. Even if the tunneling technology were somehow revolutionary — which is debatable — as an infrastructure project, this is now officially less useful than a parking garage.

Coming soon,” Musk tweeted, along with an image of an escalator descending into an underground lot ringed with vehicles, a pair of tunnels relegated to the background against the far wall. It not only looks very different from the cavernous, vaguely futuristic station that was originally proposed, it’s also a dramatic departure from the renderings presented at the beginning of the year.

A rendering of the entrance of an underground Boring Company Vegas Loop station in a parking lot with two escalators descending into the roadway.
A rendering of a Boring Company Vegas Loop station in a parking lot of the convention center, which looks like a valet stand for cars.
New Vegas Loop renderings show station designs that don’t comply with ADA guidelines.
The Boring Company

The project was originally billed as a people mover, with sleek 12-passenger “pods” that looked like minivans encased in privacy glass aiming to move 4,400 people per hour. The new rendering, however, shows Tesla Model 3 sedans instead, which could fit five passengers at most, reducing its capacity by roughly half. (For comparison, an automated tram at the Mandalay Bay resort moves 2,600 passengers per hour; a single New York City subway train can hold 2,000 people and some lines can move up to 30 trains per hour.)

Musk confirmed in replies to his tweet that the 12-passenger pods were no longer being considered, as passengers will need to be seated “for safety & speed of travel.” Which is odd, because the company recently announced it’s developing a 12-passenger vehicle for a similar Southern California airport project. But replacing the big vehicles with standard seated cars now means that the Vegas system, in one stroke, has become unavailable to people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.

Until recently, Musk had said that the larger pods could eventually be swapped in for the Tesla automobiles running in tests. But his reply was different this week when asked about boosting capacity with larger vehicles: “Individualized mass transit is the future.” The idea, in other words, is not mass transit at all, it’s that you get — everyone gets — a potentially eventually autonomous, electric-powered private bubble.

“Unlike standard public transportation systems, Loop vehicles carry small numbers of passengers (as low as one),” reads the recently overhauled Boring Company FAQ, allowing passengers to “reduce the risk of exposure to airborne diseases presented by crowds.”

Musk’s loathing for buses and trains is well-documented, and glomming on to the coronavirus phobias that have driven people away from transit seems like a calculated move. (Especially when Musk himself dangerously played down the threat of the virus.) The rendering only shows ten bays for vehicles. Given the choice of cramming in with four strangers or sitting alone for a single-passenger ride, which option will convention goers choose in post-pandemic society? The capacity of this system will be even lower than he implies.

The Vegas Loop should open on schedule by January 2021. But elsewhere in the region, the future of public transit is less clear. Staggering drops in ridership from the COVID-19 crisis have left the finances of transit authorities precarious. The RTC of Southern Nevada, which provides bus service throughout the city, received a $112 million CARES Act grant, spending $10.1 million per month out of that grant just to keep the system running. Meanwhile, Tesla continues to sell cars; even with its factory closed for seven weeks due to stay-at-home orders, the company posted a $104 million quarterly profit, its fourth consecutive quarter in the black. The company doesn’t spend anything on advertising — and, indeed, with stunts like this, it really doesn’t have to.

In a way, Musk’s tunnels have become the perfect metaphor for the public-private dilemmas all post-COVID cities will face. Almost 40 percent of Las Vegas’s transit funding comes from sales tax, which meant the RTC’s monthly revenue dropped from $4.7 million in February to only $398,943 in May. More cuts are needed, so a series of public meetings is scheduled for next week where passengers can provide feedback on proposed service reductions. One of the routes to be eliminated is the SDX, which links most major destinations from the airport to downtown. Passengers who used this bus to get to the convention center will have to plot out alternate routes or longer walks, as a $50 million tunnel built for a few dozen Teslas will be putting on its finishing touches right below their feet.