Posted on February 03, 2017 by Charles Morris
The dirt is flying almost as fast as the puns on the grounds of SpaceX’s Los Angeles headquarters. A 30-by-50-foot “test trench” is the tangible evidence of Elon Musk’s latest idea - digging tunnels to relieve traffic congestion. Musk first mentioned the idea in a tweet that he presumably wrote while stuck in LA’s horrendous traffic, and further expounded on his plans at a recent ceremony honoring the student teams who built concepts for the Hyperloop Pod Competition.
Above: Elon Musk talks traffic and tunnels (Image: Digital Trends)
“You have tall buildings, they’re all 3D, and then everyone wants to go into the building and leave the building at a same time,” said the Sage of Silicon Valley. “On a 2D road network, that obviously doesn’t work, so you have to go 3D either up or down. And I think probably down.” Musk expanded on this vision last week, telling Wired, “If you think of tunnels going 10, 20, 30 layers deep (or more), it is obvious that going 3D down will encompass the needs of any city’s transport of arbitrary size.”
Above: Tunnel boring activities have begun outside of SpaceX (Source: Wired*)
Musk hopes to apply his peerless skills at improving engineering processes to make tunnel-building more efficient. “We’re just going to figure out what it takes to improve tunneling speed. I think somewhere between 500 and 1,000 percent is possible if you apply a limited physics approach,” said Musk. He acknowledges that this is just the beginning of an experiment: “We have no idea what we’re doing - I want to be clear about that.”
Above: An image of the hole outside of SpaceX (Reddit: The_EvilElement via Today Show)
Of course, building a traffic tunnel involves more than just solving engineering problems, as pundits lined up to remind Mr. Musk, citing such famously nightmarish projects as Boston’s Big Dig and New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. Extending an underground roadway from SpaceX to LAX (which seems to be Musk’s vision) would require approval from the City Council and a mountain of paperwork. Tunnel projects run into massive problems with relocating existing underground infrastructure such as utilities, as the builders of the LA Metro have recently discovered, to the tune of over $45 million. Further roadblocks include lawsuits from neighbors and unstable local politics.
Above: Elon Musk talks about the SpaceX Hyperloop competition and his tunnel boring efforts (Youtube: SciNews)
And once you tunnel through all those obstacles, you may find that - as most transportation experts agree - opening up new roadways does little to relieve congestion, because local traffic expands to take advantage of the new capacity. What’s really needed is to get people out of their cars and into far more efficient mass transit. Yes, Elon has thought of that - as he told Wired, “better tunneling tech improves everything: road, subway, Hyperloop.”