I admire Elon Musk. If I had half his creativity, ingenuity and drive to get things done, I’d be driving a much newer Octavia vRS. Or possibly something with a V8. Maybe an Octavia vRS with a V8. Anyway, the point is that Elon Musk is a man to be respected for all that he has achieved.
However, by his own admission he’s the type of guy who’s always thinking about the next big idea rather than settling on one problem until it’s totally debugged. The endless issues with the Tesla Model 3 were an example: while the lines slowly turned out faulty goods Musk was already talking about the next car, semi and pickup he was going to build.
The Los Angeles Loop that we talked about earlier this week is turning into another example of a time when this restive engineer should probably have slowed down and considered a few other points of view. Sure, he realised this grand tunnelling project could be done. The Boring Company was founded to deliver projects like this. But Elon Musk seems so preoccupied with whether he can, that he hasn’t yet considered whether he really should.
In principle the idea is great. On paper it’s a single-file tunnel that can allow self-driving cars to travel at high speed with no danger of crashing, hitting anything or getting stuck in traffic. It needs no significant surface-level infrastructure and could cut journey times to a fraction of what Angelenos currently have to put up with. What’s more, it ‘only’ costs about $10 million per mile, compared to sub-city railways that cost – no typo – $900 million per mile. Great, you might say. Get it built!
But whoah, there, cowboy. There are some realities that we need to clash around in your face like the cymbals of an irritating toy monkey. The first is the obvious one: the Loop only runs in one direction, making the £10 million figure an immediate fallacy. For two-way traffic it’s $20 million and potentially double the build time. Musk could partly get around this by operating the single Loop tunnel in the direction most traffic needs at any one time. In the morning rush hour it would run into the city, and the reverse in the evening. It’s hardly ideal, though.
The second point is that at maximum theoretical safe capacity it could move 4000 cars per hour. That’s just over one per second. On any busy but flowing Californian freeway there might be anything between five and 15 cars passing a single point per second. Maybe more. Even assuming the finished Loop can run reliably at full capacity, it couldn’t make the tiniest dent in LA traffic. Doesn’t that alone render it a self-indulgent folly?
Arguments against it just keep on tumbling like large boulders onto a beach of mud huts. Much was made of the terribly bumpy ride during the mere 40mph test drive given to select media and fans of Musk’s work. The man himself admitted it and said the final surface will be as smooth as glass, but that’s not likely.
With very-slightly-suspended guide wheels firmly pressed against the sides of the tunnel, at 40mph even small imperfections toss the car around like a cat in a washing machine. At 155mph the surfaces down which the car is guided will have to be incalculably precise. A fraction of a millimetre this way or that, or the tiniest hump in the surface, and the occupants of a car that hits it will feel like they’ve just been kicked by a horse. That’s before we consider the smoothness of the concrete the car’s regular wheels run on. I don’t believe it’s a practical possibility to make the Loop that smooth. Not for $10 million per mile, anyway.
Finally, it’s the point I wish I didn’t have to make. The Loop, if it ever gets finished, will be a shockingly obvious target for terror attacks. Being able to drive an anonymous car up to a lift on the surface, drop down to Loop level, set off and then detonate a boot full of explosives right underneath downtown LA would suddenly have every bomb maker with ties to ISIS looking towards the city. To add time-consuming security checks to the ‘boarding’ process would put people off, so yet again we have to argue that there’s no practical point to this plan.
Elon Musk is a genius, and a wizard at actually getting crazy stuff started. Sometimes that crazy stuff is worth pursuing and perfecting for future generations. Other times, it isn’t. I think I know which category the Loop belongs in.