Elon Musk Tunnel Plan Is Full Of Holes

In the past few days, the Elon Musk tunnel plan has gotten a lot of attention, particularly in the Twittersphere. The indomitable Mr. Musk is a certified genius; there’s no debate about that. The man’s brain works in strange and mysterious ways. He woke up one morning with the idea that a private company could make rockets for less than what NASA pays and SpaceX was born. As long as you have a space exploration company, why not send people to Mars and create colonies there where wealthy earthlings can live in peace? It’s the perfect solution to what comes next after the politicians here at home have used their well documented skills to destroy this planet’s ability to sustain life.

Elon Musk tunnel boring idea

Elon dreamed up a thing called the Hyperloop — which is sort of a long distance horizontal elevator — while sitting in traffic near Los Angeles one day. Now traffic has spawned another idea from the mind of Musk. Call it the Elon Musk tunnel plan.

The idea exploded across Twitter, so Elon made another tweet a few hours later.

Oh, but Musk didn’t stop there. A short while later he was back on Twitter fanning the flames.

Musk has now added “Tunnels (yes, tunnels)” as one of his focus areas on his Twitter account.

Has Elon finally gone around the bend? Has his mind snapped under the weight of all that intellectual horsepower sequestered inside his cranium? Or has the the shock of sitting in the same room with The Donald earlier this week warped his synapses? Let’s take a look at the practicality of Musk’s latest idea.

First of all, digging tunnels is not as easy as pushing the start button on a boring machine. Traffic is only an issue in cities and cities tend to have an awful lot of infrastructure buried beneath them. There are phone lines, electrical cables, subways, sewers, and water mains all over the place. Many of them are not shown accurately on any map. Some have been there since the 19th century.

Tunnels through rock — such as those found all over northern Italy — are one thing, but holes in the ground through dirt, mud, or clay require extensive and expensive concrete reinforcement to keep what’s above them from cascading down on those unfortunate enough to be trapped below. Any miner knows you don’t just dig a tunnel without making sure it is properly braced.

Musk’s idea is basically that if traffic is bad on the FDR in New York City,  a driver could elect to simply duck into a nearby tunnel and come out a few minutes later on Delaney Street and carry on unimpeded by traffic. Musk envisions as many as 30 levels of tunnels in some heavily traveled areas. Can you imagine 30 levels of tunnels under Times Square?

With all due respect to Elon Musk, this idea is less feasible than sending people to Mars. The way to combat traffic is not to build tunnels, it is to reduce the amount of traffic. That is precisely what the brave new worlds of autonomous driving and ride sharing are expected to do. Typically, a private car is used about 5% of the day. Putting the same car to use 24 hours a day would remove 95% of the cars from city streets. That’s how you reduce congestion. Even if a self driving car is only utilized 50% of the time, that still eliminates the need for 9 out of every 10 cars in cities.

I have been accused of being a Musk fanboi. I have also been accused of being a Musk hater. I am neither. I have great admiration for the man’s ability to focus on a task and get it done regardless of the obstacles in the way. I also think there is a fine line between genius and insanity. If I could swap Musk for Trump in the White House, I would do so in a heartbeat, but I think this latest idea is just plain goofy. As my old Irish grandmother would say, “Elon, stick to your own knitting.”

Photo credit: NYMTACC via Foter.com / CC BY

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.