Musk and Trump belong together

Not again. Elon Musk babbles about a half-assed idea on his twitter account, and suddenly everyone gasps and declares, “HE’S SUCH A VISIONARY.” So now, on top of SpaceX, Hyperloop, Neuralink, electric cars, and being an advisor to Donald Trump, he wants to dig tunnels for cars to alleviate traffic. This scheme is insanely stupid.

We already have these. They’re called subways. They reduce traffic by providing mass transit, which gets around the problem of surface buildings and roads by tunneling underground. The Musk Scheme does nothing to reduce traffic that wouldn’t already be done by increasing the number of lanes or adding more freeways.

Hey! I just had an idea! We could reduce traffic if we just built flying cars! Quick, someone make a flashy concept video for me so the tech press will fawn all over me and people will give me money.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Boston tried that, burying the Northeast Expressway (I-93) through Boston. Known derogatorily as “The Big Dig”.
    Opened up “The Greenway” where the highway once was, did little to alleviate traffic.

  2. Derek Vandivere says

    #2 / slithey – I moved out of Boston in 94, just after the Dig started. It might not have done so much for traffic, but the results have definitely improved the city itself. The North End isn’t artifically separated from the rest of the city any more and the greenway is really nice.

    They’re about to sink a big part of the ring road in Amsterdam (near the ‘zuidas’ – the southern axis where most of the new skyscrapers have been going up. It’s not so much to alleviate traffic on the ring road itself as it is to alleviate the local traffic. If the alternatives are expanding above-ground highways by demolishing real estate (back in the sixties, there was a proposal to demolish most of the 19th century neighborhoods to make room for superhighways here; luckily that didn’t happen), tunnels can be a very good solution.

    Sorry, it’s boring but top of mind – I’m just finishing a GREAT book called ‘A Millennium of Amsterdam,’ a spatial history of the city. if you’re into Amsterdam or urban planning, I can’t recommend it enough…

  3. says

    he wants to dig tunnels for cars to alleviate traffic

    Really, it’s all about setting public policy to “whatever Elon Musk would find convenient.” I’m surprised he hasn’t realized that his commutes would be better if there was no population. His followers get all breathlessly excited about each new idea, because they don’t realize it’s thinly disguised solipsism. Musk wants a nice house in space, a private railway, and to be able to “upload” himself so he can be immortal god of his own realm – maybe even he doesn’t realize that, but it looks like the “me! me! me!” show. That only works as long as the number of solipsistic billionaires is small.

  4. Ogvorbis: A bear of very little brains. says

    New Jersey looked at double-decking Interstate 80 across most of the state (East-West). Spent quite a bit of money looking at the possibility. USDOT, under Bush II, said no, look at expanding rail service.

    The rail line from Scranton to New York City – parts of which are in use for passenger service, parts in use for freight, and parts abandoned – is being looked at to alleviate traffic on I-80. In 1990, they expected it to take five years. In 2000, the estimate was ten years. Now there is no estimate.

    Why? Well, a big part of it is that one of the ‘movers and shakers’ on the board overseeing the project owns a major bus line which, right now, runs upwards of 100 buses a day from eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey into eastern New Jersey and New York City. The one-track-with-passing -sidings plan (about $1 million a mile (compared to $20 million a mile to widen I-80, or $80 million a mile to double-deck it)) will absorb the 100 buses, plus about 1 lane of traffic from I-80. Double-tracking the rail line would triple the carrying capacity.

    Using rail is so fucking obvious. Why would people get excited about underground highways and be so against trains? A couple of reasons:
    1. Mass transit is viewed, in the US, as poor-people transit (rail, light-rail, street-rail and bus). And the working poor have neither the time, nor the money, to lobby for mass transit. So it is first on the cutting block, last on the spending priority.
    2. The rail industry is unionized. By an effective union. And (most of) the moneyed interests want to see unions disappear because they effect profits.
    3. We still, as a nation, are wedded to the GM ideal of a nation of car owners. Owning a car shows that one is self-sufficient (and, the way that mass-transit has been gutted, owning a car is also, in most areas, unavoidable if one wants a job), has money, has made it. And we gotta have highways where we can blast down the road at 90 miles an hour, getting 10 miles a gallon, in our luxury SUV. So we can show off our status symbol.
    d. Railroad tracks tend to be in the industrial parts of towns and cities. The ‘wrong side of the tracks’ is a real phenomenon in most towns and cities with rail service (and even the ones no longer served by rail — the dividing line is still there). Building a new rail line, or expanding an existing line, or bringing an abandoned line back into service, is met with hostility and lawyers because a railroad track anywhere near your home will destroy the property value. Even though that same homeowner benefits right now from existing mass transit whether they use it or not.
    Lastly: Mass transit is a hidden benefit. Taxpayers wonder, Well, hell, I don’t use mass transit, why should I pay for it? But, even if they do not ride the train, they benefit from it by having easier, shorter, and more cost-efficient commutes because there is less traffic congestion. I have tried to explain that one to a retired New Jersey teacher and had the same effect as a marshmallow, travelling at 20 fps, hitting 9 inches of Chobham.

    Sorry for the tl;dr. It just irks me that Musk, in his privilege, wants to build more roads, underground roads, so he and his Tesla drivers can show how modern and advanced they are, unlike those great unwashed who have not bootstrapped themselves out of mass transit, and screw actually looking for a solution to the problem, let’s just make the problem bigger.

  5. Knabb says

    Thinly veiled ripoffs of existing ideas presented as innovations in traffic control? I like it – I’ve got an idea involving taking a bunch of cars, sticking them together end to end, and only having one driver in front. It removes the space between the cars and thus makes roadways more efficient. Sure, those particularly cynical might see that as a particularly useless bus, but that’s because they aren’t visionaries.

    This is also the second plan which relies on unrealistically low estimates for how much tunnel boring and tunnel maintenance costs, along with being the second plan that involves almost completely neglecting energy costs for moving stuff through tunnels. In that vein, I’m proposing the national subterranean canal system, a set of pipes, pumping facilities, and reservoirs that connect the entire country to one big water grid, roughly analogous to the electric grid as understood by someone with an incredibly surface level understanding. Sure, digging all those tunnels and building all those pipes is vastly more complex than setting up cables to run current through, but apparently you don’t need to understand any of that to be a visionary.

  6. profpedant says

    Tunneling technology that would make Elon Musk’s suggestion practical would be a huge ‘game changer’, but using that technology to dig automated roads would not be an efficient use of resources.

  7. aziraphale says

    “The Musk Scheme does nothing to reduce traffic that wouldn’t already be done by increasing the number of lanes or adding more freeways.”

    Both of which are likely to require relocation of existing buildings and people, or (as in a case near me which has been stalled for years for just this reason) damage environmentally or scientifically valuable land. Musk is not stupid – Tesla and SpaceX are proof enough of that.

  8. throwaway, butcher of tongues, mauler of metaphor says

    I don’t recall anyone calling Musk himself stupid. This scheme of his, however, is precisely that.

  9. komarov says

    Is that video representative of the actual concept? Sticking cars into slightly bigger electrical cars, that sounds terribly efficient.* Not. And while it has the advantage of removing the driver as a risk factor those tunnels still look like a death trap, mainly because they are tunnels. Emergency response must be very exciting if you have a fire in a narrow tunnel filled to the brim with abandoned and, due to disaster, unpowered electrical cars packed with regular cars. And I’m being nice by assuming that emergency exits and entrances (for responders) were simply not rendered.** No, I’ve read one too many reports on accidents in long tunnels to be at home with moving more high-speed traffic underground than we have to.

    *Sarcasm; assuming everything is moving towards electrical propulsion anyway even the argument that it saves petrol would disappear.
    **Which wouldn’t be usueful to the walled-off middle lanes of those oblong crypts. Tunnels, I meant to say tunnels.

    P.S.: Knabb (#6):

    While you’re down there digging those canals you might as well put in some extra for other things you might need to pump around the country. Oil, gas, maybe even dilute nuclear waste, that sort of thing. It would be out of the way and Perfectly Safe (TM)! Incidentally, your system is visionary. With the entire country connected, it doesn’t matter where the water comes from. Therefore I’m almost certain it would be economically viable to mine asteroids for fresh water instead of conserving, managing and protecting local water supplies. (This post scriptum was not sponsored by any fossil fuel conglomerates but it damn well should have been.)

  10. says

    Riffing on #6: let’s synthesize. Cars end-to-end, and FLYING. Through UNDERGROUND TUNNELS. That are lined with SOLAR PANELS.

    God, I’m brilliant.

  11. Rich Woods says

    @Jess Foster #12:

    Given everything else that Musk has spoke his brainz about, how are you meant to tell?

  12. says

    I don’t recall anyone calling Musk himself stupid. This scheme of his, however, is precisely that.

    When smart people have bad ideas, it’s more dangerous than when stupid people have good ideas. In the latter case, unfortunately, nothing is likely to happen. When a smart billionaire has a bad idea, you’ve got a serious problem.

    I guess we should all just be thankful that he didn’t decide to spend his money and apparently limitless energy on trying to turn the US into {police state|fundie paradise|caliphate 3.0|libertarian gulch|Gaultland} like the Koch bros, or Shel Adelstein, or whatever. Guys like Musk and Bezos appear to be less dangerous than they are because they’re doing stuff that’s not obviously regressive – but they’re not the people’s allies and never will be. They don’t have the common interest at heart, they’re doing stuff for fun and to count coup on their peers by making another mountain of money so they can have a great big dick-measuring contest in banker’s valhalla when they die.

  13. says

    While you’re down there digging those canals you might as well put in some extra for other things you might need to pump around the country. Oil, gas, maybe even dilute nuclear waste, that sort of thing.

    Fiber optics. Electricity.

    The US has huge amounts of above ground power, compared to most 1st world countries. And we have good data communications in the cities, and crappy data communications outside because our infrastructure is still based on copper hanging from dead trees. That’s why we have huge power outages when there are storms, like we’re some 3rd world country.

  14. says

    If this is supposed to be a joke, it’s a poor one. City planners have known about induced demand for a long time, and whether you put the additional highways above or below ground doesn’t change it. Well illustrated by Caltrans:

    @ogvorbis, #5

    Mass transit is viewed, in the US, as poor-people transit

    This is a peculiarly (US-)American development over the last century. Christopher Wells has written a fantastic book (“Car Country”), about how this happened, starting with the dismantling of very functional mass transportation systems in US cities between the wars.

    The actual solution to the congestion problem, proven in cities all over the world, is effective and cheap mass transportation (the ideal, which people in Berlin are actually fighting for right now, is free, tax-funded mass transport), and making the use of cars in cities expensive. I live in a city with very few parking spaces, which are all expensive to use, but a clean, mostly electric (and renewable energy-powered) mass transportation system, as well as decent bike lanes. It’s great, I haven’t seen congestion in a long time.

  15. illdoittomorrow says

    The Musk Scheme does nothing to reduce traffic that wouldn’t already be done by increasing the number of lanes or adding more freeways.

    Induced demand makes it pretty certain that neither scheme would reduce traffic congestion.

  16. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Since observationally roughly 95% of traffic delays, outside of a few areas like Los Angeles, are caused not by an excessive volume of cars but by the people who drive them being dumb shits, we could solve most traffic problems fairly easily with our existing infrastructure if we had the societal willpower.

  17. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 5:
    I too have frequently wondered why they don’t just plop a monorail down the median of most Interstate Highways. No need to “eminent domain” a right-of-way to lay track. Just plop a 2 level monorail (one each direction). Oh, just hit me, need room to park the cars of people wanting to ride. oh well.

    I have seen such systems in so many SciFi books/movies/TV it looks like he is simply saying, “yes, possible”
    EG Dr. Who, where the entire population was stuck in a below ground traffic jam. Each person could pop to the surface at any time; at risk of getting their car hijacked when traffic started to move, so they all just lived in their cars.

  18. cartomancer says

    PZ, #11

    You forgot to fold in Musk’s other brilliant ideas. Add MIND CONTROLLED at the beginning and IN SPACE! at the end:

    MIND CONTROLLED cars, end-to-end, and FLYING. Through UNDERGROUND TUNNELS. That are lined with SOLAR PANELS. IN SPACE!

  19. says

    slithey, that reminded me of one of the ideas in the Judge Dredd comics. Because housing in such short supply in Mega City One some citizens live in large mobile homes, called mo-pads, that drive continuously around Mega City’s roadway system.

  20. Ogvorbis: A bear of very little brains. says

    slithey tove @2:

    I too have frequently wondered why they don’t just plop a monorail down the median of most Interstate Highways. No need to “eminent domain” a right-of-way to lay track. Just plop a 2 level monorail (one each direction). Oh, just hit me, need room to park the cars of people wanting to ride. oh well

    Gradient. Even monorails are limited to about a 2% ruling grade. Interstate highways are generally built with a ruling grade of 6%. A monorail could handle a 6% grade with rubber wheeled drivers and a tripling of required horsepower. The route (since I was speaking of the development wranglings of I-80 in New Jersey) has some short sections that approach 7%. So, no, a monorail down the median would not be an effective alternative. Additionally, there are areas, especially near large urban areas, where the median effectively disappears. Anywhere that there is a support structure (say, for a bridge) there are standards regarding protection and lateral clearances. Which means that it would only work in an area with medians and minimal grades. Nice idea, though.

  21. komarov says

    MIND CONTROLLED cars, end-to-end, and FLYING. Through UNDERGROUND TUNNELS. That are lined with SOLAR PANELS. IN SPACE!

    Underground tunnels in space I definitely would like to see. Also the machines and budget that built them. Had you stayed on Earth I would have suggested vacuum tunnels just for the sake of completeness. In space that would be far too easy so… pressurised tunnels? And while there are good arguments to be made for a normal – read: plain old boring – oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, why not use fluorine instead? You’re probably going to need it for mindcontrolling the cars anyway.

  22. Rich Woods says

    @komarov #27:

    Had you stayed on Earth I would have suggested vacuum tunnels just for the sake of completeness.

    I think Musk beat you to it.

    Actually, this thing is getting so self-referential now that I can no longer tell who is taking the piss and who is a billionaire egotist with more money than sense.

  23. says

    I dunno, if all these tunnels were the exclusive domain of electric vehicles fitted with Musk (TM) auto pilot systems, the pickup driving Great American Heroes would have more space to roll coal on the surface roads.

  24. says

    I am very much not an expert on this stuff, but doesn’t self driving eliminate the need for this? Or would that require every car to be self driving which isn’t going to happen anytime soon?

  25. Jessie Harban says

    I keep suspecting that Musk’s next “innovation” will be the Portable Hole.

  26. stwriley says

    I don’t know about tunnels, but I’m 54 now and I’m still waiting for my flying car.

  27. lpetrich says

    Does Elon Musk have a proposal for digging tunnels much more cheaply than at present? If so, then he should present it. Otherwise, he should concede that his Hyperloop and highway tunnels are totally impractical without a LOT of money from the politicians.

    There are two main ways of digging tunnels: cut-and-cover and all-underground. In cut-and-cover, one digs a trench, builds the tunnel walls in it, and then covers up the tunnel. In all-underground, one can either use the more usual excavation techniques or else use a Tunnel Boring Machine. TBM’s have been used to dig some very long tunnels, like the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. TBM’s typically consist of a rotating cutter head, a cylindrical shield just behind the head, automatic lining installers, and conveyor belts for carrying away the excavated material.

    In urban areas, tunneling is especially challenging, because there are usually lots of utilities below the streets, and nearby building foundations. Also, many cities are built near rivers or coastlines, something that gives a risk of flooding, and something that also often makes for soft soil instead of hard rock.

  28. throwaway, butcher of tongues, mauler of metaphor says


    Musk said the Boring Company would also cut costs by improving the power and thermal limit of its tunneling machine by “a factor of four or five.”
    “We have a pet snail called Gary. … So Gary is capable of currently going 14 times faster than a tunnel boring machine,” Musk said. “We want to beat Gary. He is not a patient little fellow, and that will be victory.”

    Astoundingly the Musk they’re referring to was not 5 years old at the time.

  29. lpetrich says

    The Hyperloop is the latest version of the vactrain, and it has numerous problems, like keeping all of its tunnels evacuated, and doing track switching. An elevated version would likely provoke lots of NIMBY objections in urban and suburban areas.

    As to the car elevators in the linked video, it seems easier to have access ramps, though such ramps have problems of their own. Like being long to keep their slopes down. There is also the problem of streets crossing streets. One will either have to have traffic lights, or else make some streets deeper than others.

    To get an idea of what the cost is likely like, consider the Gotthard Base Tunnel. It costed about $210 million / kilometer or $340 million / mile. I will now consider a four-line scheme that gets close to most of the major cities in the contiguous United States.

    NYC – Chicago – LA: 2500 mi, $850 B, Boston – Atlanta – Miami: 1600 mi, $540 B, Minneapolis – Chicago – Dallas – Houston: 1400 mi, $480 B, Denver – Salt Lake City – San Francisco: 1000 mi, $340 B, Seattle – San Francisco – San Diego: 1200 mi, $410 B. Total: 7700 mi, $2.6 trillion.

  30. lpetrich says

    Strictly speaking, a 4-1/2-line scheme, with the NYC-LA line having a branch to SF at Denver.

    @throwaway #36: So EM is comparing TBM’s to snails? Snails are very slow animals, but they don’t dig tunnels as they travel. I’ve found various speeds for land snails, like 2.8 to 13 mm/s. For the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the TBM’s had a maximum tunneling speed of about 0.3 mm/s (30 m/day, 10 km/year). Source:

  31. stwriley says

    @hogeyegrex #33

    Well, I guess I’d better welcome our computer overlords then.

  32. says

    I suppose there are benefits for not being a genius visionary – you don’t end up producing Spruce Gooses, which turn out to work, but are completely worthless, due to terrible timing, and someone coming up with better solutions, or end up striping naked and peeing in jars. Enter Musk, who.. while he hasn’t gone all the way to jars, never the less is scared to death of the modern equivalent of the 1960s, “evil, slow moving, robot, who can zap you with lightning”, has several Spruce Gooses on his plate, and no problem ignoring silly things like, “We don’t actually have a clue how that would even work yet, nor do we expect a breakthrough in the next few years.”, as well as the funny little problem of, “The solution never functions, or looks like what the joker talking about it today thinks it will look like in the future, when it actually happens.” His imagined world, almost certainly, will be the next “Fallout game” (i.e., everything the 1950s tech/design/imagination of what the future would be), but with robots and nuclear powered cars, in a wasteland caused by WWIII), in 2120, assuming anyone even cares about some of the silly nonsense he is coming up with now, when someone finally makes a game about, “What might have been if…”, then.

    But, isn’t that the thing with visionaries, especially the ones with money to try to make their ideas real.. they come up with a thousand silly ideas, of which a few work, and an equal number are totally insane, while the rest are just a bit off center from, “plausible now”, and in the realm of, “but maybe possible if someone decides to make one 200 years from now, when the tech exists to reinvent the silly idea from the past, for some retro-design, lets see if we could actually do this now, reason.”? lol

  33. M31 says

    @lpetrich #37

    $2.6 trillion seems so over-the-top until you realize that it’s the low-end estimate of the total cost of the Iraq War.
    That doesn’t mean this thing isn’t a good idea — it’s not, lol, but ‘too expensive’ isn’t actually the case.
    Probably would have had a better overall outcome than the Iraq War, though.

  34. says

    Does this Musk guy know there’s ALREADY a lot of traffic underground? Water mains, sewer mains, gas mains, power and telecom cables, underground car-parks under the buildings where all those people drive and have to park their cars, that sort of thing. More underground road-tunnels would mean more digging around/through all that pre-existing traffic — that’s just one reason why subway tunnels are so expensive, and why more tunnels for individuals’ cars would be even more expensive.

    Musk just sounds like yet another libertarian with absolutely zero common sense, and zero idea of how people do things in the real world.

  35. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Someone* needs to tell Trump that while cars run on nasty oil imported from places full of Muslims or Latinos, trains** run on beautiful, clean, American coal.

    *Alec Baldwin, perhaps, or Ringo Starr (alas, it’s too late for George Carlin).
    **No need to mention to him that it’s not all trains.

  36. DanDare says

    Many decades ago I sent this idea to Queen Elizabeth ii complete with drawings in texta. I want a share of the IP.

  37. jamiejag says

    Since climate change will ultimately flood all these tunnels anyway, why not make them underground canals with barges to transport the cars, rather than energy sucking, robotic, battery powered sleds which will eventually, inevitably rise up against their meatbag overlords?

  38. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I see this as a blueprint for selling off the existing subway systems, and converting them to private toll roads. I can’t imagine where this cynicism comes from…