Recently, Elon Musk's Boring Company and its ideas were featured as part of his TED talk this month. They are visualized on this brief video. Already, a critic has surfaced, decrying impracticality. Such is the nature of disruptive ideas, like modern electric cars: innovation sparks institutions of the status quo to reject change, especially if it reduces cost through automation or a dramatic increase in efficiency. Quite plainly, the ideas of this company do both.
Presently, cities spend tax dollars on large, complicated road systems. Generally speaking, no one is particularly enamoured with massive freeway interchanges except the companies that amass hundreds of millions of dollars to build them. Although marvels in bridge-work, they tend not to stand up to earthquakes very well, such as has happened in San Francisco and Northridge, CA. They can even collapse due to poor engineering or maintenance, as was the case with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Interstate 35 over the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis.
Roads are also exposed to the elements and suffer from water doing all kinds of things to the traction and passage of friction-based travel. Additionally, water plus wild yet seasonal temperature fluctuations create potholes and buckled roads, when combined with friction-based travel. Tremendous civic spending and industry have built up around maintaining the surface of a road. Sometimes, that gets disastrously complicated, as was the case with the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. Because it passes over St. Anthony Falls, it was the first bridge to have built-in road de-icing. Unfortunately, that meant a system was built to hold and disperse corrosive salt compounds, which weakens iron-based bridge elements. While in the middle of "resurfacing" (the concrete slabs for driving were being replaced), engineering failed, and the bridge suffered from:
- Wild temperature (and humidity) fluctuations in the summer
- A recent spill of the de-icing compound
- Heavy rush-hour traffic on a fraction of available lanes
- Imbalanced weight distribution while the slabs were being rebuilt
- Constant moisture from the falls
The idea of mass transit is great. The execution leaves something to be desired, variably. Transit vehicles are designed to collect passengers at predetermined locations, wait a period of time before departing (so those approaching don't fall running to catch the ride), and continue on its route, typically stopping at every predetermined point. The larger the transit vehicle, the more likely it stops, and rail or subway transit will always stop at every stop. This increases the number of passengers per vehicle, but many other factors also increase.
Railway mass transit has a fixed rate of travel, with light rail averaging 19 miles an hour or slower, which can easily be beaten with an electric skateboard. When you factor in waiting for transit to arrive, plus getting down to where it is, this figure drops futher. With a bus system, you end up with speeds below a Segway at 12mph and its 25 mile range.
One of the most unsavory topics of mass transit is the unspoken one: personal safety from others. Transit police are an added cost and they are an avoidable deterrent for determined, organized troublemakers. Quite simply, those who can afford not to use mass transit frequently hire a ride or own and drive a vehicle outright. In some countries, wealthy individuals own a vehicle and employ a chauffeur.
Safety, shorter travel time, and privacy are often at the core of why mass transit is disregarded. Additionally, reliability, flexible travel times (such as late nights and weekends), cleanliness, and cargo are other factors that discount against mass transit.
The Idea as Presented
The Boring Company captured several ideas in the featured video vignette, as it relates to transit. This spells them out as shown.
Multi-purpose : different vehicle classes are shown entering the tunnels and onto the skate, namely a passenger vehicle and a public transit van. Subway tunnels are designed only for one type of vehicle.
Surface accessibility : access to the tunnel network is through a surface-level elevator onto the skate directly. This eliminates complex, underground queueing spaces entirely. Also, vagabonds will not use transit stations as a refuge from the elements.
Controlled access : existing subway systems are entered on foot. Automated physical access simplifies physical security issues to an automated system. For subways, there is typically no tunnel door to prevent accidental falls onto the track, littering, or the accumulation of pestilence, as vermin will not find a smooth, vertical shaft behind a sealed, computer-controlled door to be a navigable route to a habitat.
Automation : coupled with controlled access, a fully-automated system, instead of operator-controlled rail cars, allows for tighter queueing of vehicles and creates an on-demand model for the transit corridor, whether for individual vehicles or a public transit van. When combined with the skates, this eliminates accidents due to operator error, which claim many lives quickly and tragically. This also allows for greater top speeds and tighter corridor spacing between vehicles.
Skate vehicles : adding to the reasons above, skate vehicles are a rail approach minus the passenger space and ingress requirements. Put simply, if the skate can be accessed, the transit corridor can be used. The skates, as automated carriers, travel at speeds allowable by computing efficiency and engineering specification. They also can benefit from improved durability on the contact surface versus tires on pavement, or even pursue magnetic hover technology, as was suggested through later mention of the Hyperloop possibility.
Underground : well-built underground tunnels are sealed to water and to the weather, with constant temperatures. Turning a tunnel into a major transit corridor saves significant maintenance costs, and frees up land for other purposes. Freeway interchanges take up drastic amounts of land, and the peripheral of that land requires maintenance for litter, vegetation management, and roadkills. Such problems do not exist in a sealed, underground tunnel. Likewise, earthquakes will not topple a tunnel like the freeway overpasses and bridges mentioned earlier. No transit tunnels in Los Angeles or San Francisco have collapsed, and the earthquake wasn't even felt underground, or has there been tunnel damage from earthquakes. Perhaps the most obvious about underground is scalability, as tunnels do not require complexity to stack deeper as growth develops.
Water-tight : something of a side-effect of having an underground tunnel is that a water-tight tunnel is also an air-tight tunnel. This means that the Hyperloop, a low-pressure (not quite a vacuum) tunnel can afford higher speeds at lower noise and energy costs due to air resistance. This would require some thought put into the skate design, for breathing purposes.
Smaller diameter : many engineering challenges are greatly simplified with smaller diameter tunnels. A typical subway tunnel is 24 feet in diameter. The 12-foot diameter tunnel requires less complexity to seal, is more durable, and can be drilled faster. Smaller volume requires less lighting as well.
Silent : underground tunnels do not make noise or vibration. At a modest depth, even the drilling of the tunnels is imperceptible to the most sensitive equipment and forms of life. Most subway noise people detect are through open air, underground transit stations, which echo up to the street.
Non-polluting : unlike modern road systems, an electrified, underground transit corridor will not produce deadly toxins released in high concentration throughout the countryside and the urban areas, as is common with combustion engines at high speeds or in heavy traffic.
Although a multitude of benefits listed above are immediately obvious, at this point, I freely share my own, accompanying ideas which are less obvious.
In keeping with the present day, where we are between the age of the internet and the age of robotics/AI, I assume a greater degree of connectivity as a community. As such, the expectation is that participants of this transit corridor will want an interface to it. That interface can be built into vehicles or into mobile devices in the case of the transit van demonstrated in the video. The immediate purpose of the computing interface is to gain access (and pay for) the use of the transit corridor. When tied to the vehicle itself, corridor ownership can levy appropriate fees based on the mass of the vehicle. In days where politicians are struggling to come up with an equivalent "gas tax" for electric vehicles, and no system seems to be without imperfection, a computerized, usage-based approach. This eliminates the need for transponders, patrols, cameras, and stopping to make change or drop coins. Further, the concept of skipped toll booths does not turn into an imperfect machine vision process to read license plates on fast-moving vehicles in all weather conditions. This reduces systems complexity and eliminates jobs, patrol duties for law enforcement, and considerable equipment capital.
Less obvious is the multi-use approach to these skates. Presently, long haul freight is often a driver and a cargo in an enclosed shipping container. Moving to an enclosed skate model in a tunnel means that the driver can be eliminated, as all road hazards are obsolete on a rail system. A smart skate can also weigh the loaded container, apply appropriate weight-based fees, and determine if the load is appropriate for the transit corridor, as well as the complex mathematical calculations to determine acceleration and braking requirements. Moving freight underground improves its safety from road hazards, both as an impact to freight transit and as a hazard to other vehicles in a freely driven road environment. The computerization, rail, and isolation also allows for superior speeds, and Hyperloop technology would allow those speeds to surpass air freight.
Coupled with the on-demand aspect of the transit van mentioned above is the rival concept of a hired driver. Presently, vehicle owners are driving their cars in an on-demand capacity, waiting for fares, using an application, and doing their best. It is a good way to make some extra cash, or in more dedicated individuals, a living. However, the skill of being a driver is nearing extinction. Owning a vehicle that is rented out and drives automatically is one expected future. Given that a transit van is focused on producing a safe, comfortable environment for passengers, and the prior concerns about mass transit, the network for the transit corridor can be extended to the transit van. If one passenger requires all the space in the van, for cargo, safety, or privacy, that can be selected when the transit van is hired. This allows the network for the transit corridor to become a free market for enterprising transit van owners, or even mixed, light-duty scenarios and delivery services. Where certain jobs are eliminated, new business opportunities are created.
These same tunnels can be shrunk further. A six-foot diameter tunnel can service most parcel and distributor delivery, even refuse and recycling services. In urban environments, delivery trucks often park where they can, blocking traffic and creating considerable street noise. With a different configuration, business loading docks can be replaced with indoor loading areas, reducing building footprint and better controlling building access. Like with the transit van, what was once a delivery enterprise of driver and vehicle services can become fleet management of cargo capsules.
End of the Line
In countries like Japan, where the population curve is bulged at retirement age, automation and future technology will be most welcome. In other countries like United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, where prominent income has an appetite for the future, the same welcome also exists.
Nations that embrace status quo and job security (also known as stagnancy), will fall behind. The efficiencies of future technologies will be resisted by the status quo. To what degree the future can be resisted is determined by the zealotry that drives it. Will terrorists attempt to load devastating bombs into this new transit corridor? The fools will overlook underground nuclear weapons testing as being safely done in deep tunnels. The more anticipated antagony is from those who have power and intend to keep it. Elected and appointed officials who last until the end of their term in office. Your greatest power to influence the timeline for this future is through voting, speaking up, and spending your money.
This is the beginning, the inspired kernel of an idea. Although the Boring Company is building on concepts as old as the Thames Tunnel of 1865, we live in an interconnected time where ideas are far more accelerated and woven into a synergy of collective thought.