When billionaire Elon Musk sat down for a 40-minute TED talk last week in Vancouver, B.C., he could have started out talking about SpaceX’s rockets, Tesla’s electric vehicles, his Hyperloop mass-transit concept, his role as an adviser to President Donald Trump or the Neuralink vision for implanting computer chips in our brains.
Instead, he began with a boring topic – as in boring tunnels underground.
“We’re trying to dig a hole under L.A.,” Musk told TED head curator Chris Anderson. “This is to create the beginning of what will hopefully be a 3-D network of tunnels to alleviate congestion.”
Musk said traffic congestion was “soul-destroying,” and “particularly horrible in L.A.”
He showed off a video concept that calls for platforms he calls “car skates” to lower vehicles into the tunnel system from surface streets. Down in the tunnel network, cars could ride the electric-powered, rail-borne skates at speeds of up to 130 mph.
“You should be able to get from, say, Westwood to LAX in six minutes, five or six minutes,” Musk said, drawing applause from the technorati in Vancouver. Typically, that drive takes 30 minutes.
Is Musk’s vision more than a pipe dream? For months, he’s been delving into the technology for digging tunnels, and has frequently joked about “The Boring Company” that he would create. But the company is no joke. Musk has acquired a boring machine to study how it works and make it better, and he’s hiring engineers.
As any Seattleite knows, digging tunnels is no easy task. It took the 57-foot-wide boring machine known as Bertha almost four years to create one tunnel beneath downtown Seattle – more than a year longer than originally scheduled, in large part to a multimillion-dollar repair operation required along the way. And the mission isn’t yet accomplished: Cars won’t be traveling through the newly dug Highway 99 tunnel until 2019.
Musk claims that he can do the job much better. For example, reducing the diameter of each tunnel to, say, 12 feet will reduce the complexity and the cost involved, he said in Vancouver.
He’s clearly putting his bet on going low than going high. During the TED talk, Musk said flying cars are a bad idea, even though Uber, Airbus, Kitty Hawk and several other ventures are putting serious money into the concept.
“That is not an anxiety-reducing situation,” he said. “You don’t think to yourself, ‘Well, I feel better about today.’ You’re thinking, like, ‘Did they service their hubcap, or is it going to come off and guillotine me?'”
Musk said the tunnel technologies required for a 3-D underground network could also be applied above ground to create Hyperloop-based mass transit systems.
Later in the talk, Musk said he’s still hoping to have a Tesla vehicle do a fully autonomous demonstration drive between New York and Los Angeles by the end of this year. “It’s not sort of limited to L.A. to New York,” he said. “We could change it and make it Seattle-Florida, that day, in real time.”
Musk envisions a two-year timetable for self-driving cars so good you could fall asleep behind the wheel … if there is a wheel, that is. For more about the Hyperloop, self-driving cars and all the other technological frontiers Musk aims to attack, check out the full 40-minute video or read the transcript.