Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Friday gave the first glimpse into how he envisions cars entering his high-tech, multi-layer series of tunnels he’s hoping to build deep underground in Los Angeles to relieve traffic congestion.
The solution: an elevator, one that takes the space of just two parking spaces and that can be added throughout the city for seamless entrances and exits.
In a video that debuted during an extended on-stage interview on the final day of the TED conference, a car pulls to the side of the road, on top of a platform that Musk called a “car skate.” An elevator lowers the car, which remains on the skate during its time in the tunnel, whizzing through at speeds of up to 130 miles per hour.
Musk’s idea comes from his latest venture, cleverly named the Boring Company, set to focus on ways to make tunnel-boring technology cheaper and faster.
“Right now, one of the most soul-destroying things is traffic. It affects people in every part of the world. It takes away so much of your life,” Musk said in the more than 30-minute interview. “It’s horrible.”
Tunnels entice Musk for many reasons. There is no physical limit to how many levels can be built so, theoretically, more and more layers of roads could be added, preventing congestion. When a tunnel is deep enough, it’s also nearly impossible to detect construction on the surface, Musk added, preventing disruptions to homeowners or businesses above such tunnels.
He also suggested tunnels could be paired with another one of his interests, the Hyperloop, to quickly transport people from cities like New York to Washington.
TED is a conference packed with far-out inventions. At this week’s event, speakers demonstrated personal jetpacks and flying cars as transportation alternatives. Musk said that he likes flying objects — “obviously, I do rockets,” he said — but found the wind force and noise generated from aerial vehicles problematic.
“If something is flying over your head, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation,” he said. “You’re thinking: Did they service their hubcap or is it going to fly off and guillotine me?”
Still, it’s outrageously expensive to build tunnels. A recent 2.5-mile extension of the L.A. subway system cost about $2 billion, or roughly a billion a mile.
Musk said there were straightforward ways to make construction cheaper. The first step: cutting the diameter of the tunnels. Current regulations require tunnels to be large enough to allow sufficient ventilation and room for emergency vehicles. But, with only the electric skates moving through, Musk thinks he can cut the tunnels in half.
Additional improvements could come from updating the technology of the boring machines. Crew now drill for a tunnel, stop and then reinforce the walls. Musk wants a machine that can continuously tunnel and reinforce, and said it’s possible to substantially increase the power of these machines to quicken the process.
His benchmark for speed: “Gary,” a pet snail named after the mollusk of a similar name on the “SpongeBob SquarePants” animated series.
“Gary is capable of currently going 14 times faster than a tunnel-boring machine,” Musk said dryly. “We want to beat Gary. He’s not a patient little fellow. That will be victory. Victory is beating the snail.”
A crew started building Musk’s tunnel in January by digging into the parking lot of SpaceX’s offices in L.A., as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. This week, a photo surfaced of a boring machine with the company’s logo on it.
During the interview, Musk gave no timeframe or cost estimate of construction, and did not talk of the inevitable hurdles the project would face.
When Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, asked Musk how much time he devoted to the project, he said 2 to 3 percent. The team working on it is mostly interns and part-timers.
“This is what an Elon Musk hobby looks like,” Anderson quipped.
The crowd laughed. Then Musk responded.
“It’s kind of puttering along,” he said, “but it’s making good progress.”