Musk, boring and chirping
He has ideas. Many ideas. And that can be a very good thing, if good intentions are equaled by a firm understanding of consequences
A computer genius played an integral role in social media ubiquity. Though social media existed before Facebook and smartphone usage today can feel indistinguishable from social media engagement, more than 500 million used Facebook before 2010 ended and the age of smartphone addiction began.
Decades ago, before a genius led a team of physicists to create the most devastating weapon in human history, arguably our culture was significantly more influenced by musical, literary and artistic geniuses. Those who could delve deep within and produce art like Chopin, Dostoevsky and van Gogh shaped and inspired culture for generations.
Can any artistic genius understand their impact on culture? They can be praised by critics, have their works purchased for gobs of money and be mimicked by others. But how would they know how many and in what ways they truly influenced the world?
For scientific geniuses, they can witness how a lack of foresight and/or purpose can have negative consequences. Yes Facebook has more than 1 billion users. To do what? A single platform can reach more human beings than any other (with the exception of Google). Are we more connected and understanding as a result of such artificial interconnectedness? Or is Zuckerberg facing more governmental scrutiny for serious security, safety and privacy issues than he thought imaginable back in 2004?
When Oppenheimer and others created the atomic bomb, there is every reason to believe they earnestly wanted to help the Allies defeat the Nazis and fascism. Two months after the bombing of Hiroshima, Oppenheimer said at Fuller Lodge when honored by the U.S. Army for his atomic bomb work at Los Alamos:
If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.
Since WWII, America’s staggering military might buttressed by an unholy nuclear arsenal has not stemmed fascism in any part of the world or prevented authoritarian tendencies from rising in the US.
The biggest technology news this week is Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which will transition the ‘digital public square’ full of the elite class and much less of the ‘commoners’ from a publicly owned corporation to a privately owned town square. And while that news can have free speech implications, another development this week could also have long-tail implications - Musk’s The Boring Company received $675 million in new funding now valuing the company at $5.7 billion.
The Boring Company is for all intents and purposes a modern construction company. Their mission: “solve traffic, enable rapid point-to-point transportation and transform cities.” On their website, there is zero research studies cited to support their case of why their particular solutions are the best path forward. And that might be too critical given a minimal aesthetic always accompanies company websites that are considered to be and want to be seen as cool and cutting edge. What we can glean from their digital storefront is they intend to solve traffic by building tunnels with automated tunneling and someday develop a hyperloop which in theory could transport passengers and cargo at speeds up to 800mph. But how they describe their solutions is telling:
Solve traffic: to solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D. Surface roads today incorporate 3D model-like elevated highways and cloverleaf interchanges that are expensive and disruptive to build. Tunneling networks are 3D and provide high-throughput transportation in an economically viable way. Traffic and congestion will be a thing of the past.
Beautify our cities: existing transportation networks occupy valuable space in cities where land availability is scarce. Tunnels minimize usage of surface area and could move entire transportation networks underground. Taking transportation underground allows us to repurpose roads into community-enhancing spaces, and beautify our cities.
Enable Hyperloop: Hyperloop networks unlock high-speed regional transportation surpassing other alternatives. Hyperloop enables access to individualized, point to point high-speed transportation.
And to help build this utopian ideal, The Boring Company will use Prufrock, an automated machine that uses electrical energy to tunnel at faster speeds than current alternatives so overall costs will be significantly reduced and safer for the environment.
It sounds too good to be true. And currently that is correct.
Musk’s optimism can be enrapturing but referring to public research could help clarify and improve his ideas. The above tweet was mercilessly ridiculed by those who have seen firsthand subways can be flooded. To build such technological innovations requires a great deal of engineering and technological prowess. But the innovations should solve the actual problem.
The Boring Company is headquartered in the Austin, Texas metropolitan area, and Musk has been attempting to secure new projects in Texas. When San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke to a local CBS news affiliate on April 16th about Musk’s proposal to build a tunnel from downtown San Antonio to its international airport, Mayor Nirenberg said:
What I have seen after exploring the boring tunnel concept, again, doesn’t suit any of the priorities we’re trying to achieve in transportation.
He didn’t say cost or timeframe. He’s speaking to the actual solution presented.
Back in August 2021, ABC News reported “The Boring Company recently met with the city of Austin to discuss a potential underground transportation tunnel from the Tesla Gigafactory to downtown Austin.” Is there a lot of traffic from downtown Austin to Tesla’s Gigafactory? The proposed tunnel would also run through Austin’s International Airport. And while Austin officials traveled this month to Las Vegas to discuss city regulations, no official plan has actually been submitted by The Boring Company.
Vegas was chosen as the meeting place because The Boring Company has already built 1.7 miles of tunnels with 3 stations underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). The company’s website claims that at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show the “LVCC Loop transported between 14,000 and 17,000 passengers per day, with an average ride time of less than two minutes and average wait time of less than 15 seconds.” According to CNN, “the reality so far, in Las Vegas at least, has involved human drivers operating what resemble standard Teslas at 35 mph.”
Back in July 2017, Musk tweeted The Boring Company received verbal government approval to build an underground NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-DC hyperloop that would transport passengers from NYC to the nation’s capital in less than 30 minutes. As of today, that project has 0 out of 4 environmental review and permitting processes completed. According to the government permitting dashboard, the project seems to have been paused since Fall 2019.
Every great idea encounters hurdles before coming to life. And the stated goals are admirable. Reducing transport time has significant health and economic benefits. And as The Boring Company notes on their site, tunnels could afford municipalities more space to ‘beautify our cities.’ Yet we must remain mindful of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. The results to date do not indicate we should be rushing full steam ahead. And yet, The Boring Company just received a $675 million Series C round of funding.
With Musk’s purchase of Twitter in a supposed desire to restore free speech, it’s easy to understand the reason for the Facebook example above. But why the atomic bomb reference?
When governments, like the United States, start turning to highly intelligent and ambitious billionaires like Musk to solve very real socioeconomic problems, such as traffic and infrastructure, they can divert millions and potentially billions of taxpayer dollars to fund these projects. Despite receiving hundreds of millions in funding, The Boring Company is directly pitching city officials to pay for these tunnels, from pedestrian to hyperloop. And once that money is spent and if projects don’t come to fruition, citizens pay a second price of not having those funds to actually solve the original problem the funds were used to solve (and even less to spend on social uplift programs).
Musk and The Boring Company could have every good intent to realize hyperloops. Now they have funding and additional government support for Musk in general with his purchase of Twitter. From Reuters this week:
"Free speech is making a comeback," tweeted U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, a member of the Freedom Caucus of conservative House Republicans.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, another Republican, said on Monday: "I am hopeful that Elon Musk will help rein in Big Tech's history of censoring users that have a different viewpoint."
Is it difficult to imagine before hyperloops become a reality, Musk asks a friendly White House and Congress about funding his dream to colonize Mars?
..to learn more about American infrastructure:
2021 Infrastructure Report Card, from the American Society of Civil Engineers (spoiler: America got many D’s and only 2 B’s)
Council on Foreign Relations: State of U.S. Infrastructure (“Experts say that U.S. infrastructure is both dangerously overstretched and lagging behind that of its economic competitors”)
White House: Modernizing U.S. Infrastructure, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (signed into law on November 15, 2021)
Brookings Institution: Smart transportation in China and the United States (recommendations start on page 12)