Elon Musk's tunnel project hit a milestone. But the future is unclear.
Posted June 12, 2020 11:08 a.m. EDT
CNN — Three years ago, Elon Musk pitched a grandiose vision for the future of intracity vehicle travel: layers of tunnels that would efficiently speed vehicles through cities. Drivers would maneuver their own Teslas to street-level elevators, which would lower them to be whisked away on autonomous electric sleds at speeds up to 120 mph. Pedestrians and cyclists would ride in an autonomous electric vehicle that resembled a glass-plated train car.
Musk's career is rich in accomplishments that have earned him a place in history. He made electric cars popular at Tesla and pioneered reusable rockets at SpaceX, which recently became the first private company to send astronauts to space. But he's also gained a reputation for making bold statements, and not always living up to them.
He intended to send space tourists around the moon in 2018, and to demonstrate a cross-country drive in an autonomous Tesla by the end of 2017. And over the years, Musk has set his sights on the transformation of both intra- and intercity transportation infrastructure, to little apparent success thus far.
He created the Boring Company to pursue his transit vision. One of his projects, which features two one-mile-long tunnels in Las Vegas, was completed last month. When it opens for business in January 2021, little of the original vision will have materialized. Passengers will enter a Tesla—piloted by another human, rather than ferried by autonomous sleds—and be driven at a top speed of 35 miles per hour, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill.
In 2017, Musk tweeted he had "verbal govt approval" to build a tunnel from New York to Washington, DC, drawing widespread media coverage. This intercity rapid transportation project, originally announced in 2013 and dubbed the Hyperloop, would theoretically be accomplished by building autonomous, electric pods that would carry passengers at up to 600 miles per hour. But the first leg of that project is currently mired in an environmental review, and there's no clear timeline for it being completed.
It was on stage in April 2017 at a Ted ideas conference, that Musk showed an animated video of vehicles being lowered into tunnels on elevators that blended into curbside parking spots and sped through the city on electric sleds. He called this intracity transportation project Loop and claimed its autonomous rides would be cheaper than the bus. Thirty layers of tunnels in a city could probably completely fix the congestion problem in high-density cities, Musk said in November 2018.
But the Boring Company's two completed tunnels at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which will open over a year past Musk's original estimate, are a far cry from the slick Ted video pitch. Beyond the 35 mph speed limit and an initial need for human drivers, the project is built for conference-goers and not currently intended as public transportation.
The system will rely on Tesla Model 3s and Xs. A tram built on a Model 3 chassis that carries 12-16 passengers may be introduced later, according to Hill. He expects the vehicles will eventually drive autonomously, once they're proven to be safe. Hill said he was not sure how long that would take.
The Boring Company and a representative for Musk did not respond to CNN Business requests for comment.
The recently-finished tunnels may eventually be expanded throughout greater Las Vegas, providing trips between casinos, resorts, residential neighborhoods, a sport stadium and the airport. Two resorts, Wynn Las Vegas and Resorts World Las Vegas, submitted expansion plans this month to local government for approval. Both are located about a mile from the Convention Center.
Construction could begin later this year, pending approval. Fares will be affordable, according to a spokeswoman for Resorts World Las Vegas, which is scheduled to open in summer 2021. No further details about the proposed expansion have been released.
Hill said that tickets would cost from $3 to $5, making them more expensive than a bus ticket. Single bus trips can be $3 or less in Las Vegas, and a monthly bus pass can be had for $65.
The Boring Company has released a map of how the Loop could be extended further, with 27 more stops in Las Vegas, and an extension to Los Angeles. That proposal has yet to leave the drawing board, however. So far it just appears to be a proposal with no sign-on from Las Vegas.
A McCarran International Airport spokesman said nothing formal is in the works for any new airport connections to the Strip or convention centers. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman declined to comment for this story.
While the reality at this point doesn't live up to Musk's initial vision, Las Vegas leaders are excited about a potential expansion, which they see as a cost-effective way to improve local transportation.
"We've looked at subway systems, we've looked at monorails, we've looked at light rail," Hill said. "It's not because we haven't thought of anything. It's either we don't have room for that or we can't afford that."
A monorail, for example, can cost $100 million a mile, he said. The Boring Company hasn't requested public funding, and thinks it can dramatically reduce the costs of tunneling.
Yet there are questions about if it will live up to its promise, be cost-effective and serve a significant number of visitors. Musk, who is CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink, said last month he spends less than 1% of his time on the company. Musk has played a key role in the success of his other companies, so his limited time contribution could impact how successful the company is.
In 2017, Musk announced he received government approval for a proposed Hyperloop, a high-speed underground train service that would make trips between New York and Washington, DC in less than 30 minutes and at speeds over 600 mph. Questions have lingered over whether Musk has sufficient approvals to complete the project.
Meanwhile, besides Las Vegas, some of the Boring Company's other Loop projects have slowly moved forward. If completed, they would operate at lower speeds, with a cap of 155 mph.
One example, its project between DC and Baltimore is under environmental review, according to a Federal Highway Administration spokesman. A federal government website that tracks the permitting of infrastructure projects has described the review as being completed by the end of 2019. The spokesman declined to say why the review appears to be delayed.
The project will initially be limited to 1,000 passengers per direction per day, according to the government's environmental assessment of the project. That will give it less capacity than the Marc Camden Line, a commuter rail service that connects the same two cities, and has an average weekday ridership of 5,075, according to Maryland state data. The assessment says the Loop's capacity is due to the limited size of the DC Loop station location. Future expansions may accommodate more than 100,000 passengers per direction per day, when including trips to future intermediate stations, according to the assessment.
If the Boring Company is cleared to move ahead with the DC to New York Hyperloop project, the project's curvy route south of Baltimore will make it technically unrealistic to maintain the high speeds Musk projected, according to Christian Claudel, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas-Austin who has advised students on a Hyperloop project. Given how sharp the curves are in a map of the project, the G forces would be too intense for even fighter pilots, he said.
Plans to build a Loop from downtown Chicago to O'Hare Airport appear to be mothballed. A spokesman for the city of Chicago said the project hadn't been discussed since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office a year ago.
But in Vegas, interest remains high to see what the Boring Company can pull off, if it expands.
"From my sense, it's just a matter of time," said Jeremy Aguero, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Stadium Authority Board. "The world of possibilities is significant for Southern Nevada and probably beyond."