Weekly Brief: Why Musk’s ‘Bumpy’ Tunnel is Still Important

Ideas are beautiful. Reality is messy.

No matter how pristine a vision may be in our brains, translating that vision into the real world, through the rigors of research and development, through a swamp of state and federal laws, against the expectations of investors and out into the floodwaters of 21st century life, inevitably leads to something that is anything but ideal. I once heard David Foster Wallace, titan of American letters in the 1990s, put it this way: “Doing anything is actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

I returned to that quote last week in the aftermath of Elon Musk unveiling his highly anticipated tunnel. You know the one I’m talking about, which was born of Musk’s frustration with traffic in Los Angeles and which he claims, with his usual bluster, will revolutionize transportation. Musk’s vision is for a technology that allows him to dig massive tunnels quickly and cheaply underground, through which 16-seater autonomous shuttles will hum along at 150 miles per hour, thus easing gridlock overhead without adding unsightly infrastructure to existing cityscapes. It’s a nice idea and perhaps even a profound one.

Last week we got to see the thing in reality, and it was … well, bumpy to say the least. The tunnel that Musk’s Boring Company completed is in Hawthorne, California, right next to SpaceX’s headquarters. One reviewer likened it to “riding on a dirt road.” It’s bumpy and slow, which means that it can move a fraction of the people that a standard subway or underground train system could.

That doesn’t mean Musk’s creation is a bust. The boring technology that he’s created claims to be able to bore tunnels at the cost of about $10M per mile, according to Musk. That’s a fraction of the $100 to $500M per mile that cities and companies regularly pay these days. So, if Musk’s Boring Company can dramatically reduce the cost and time that it takes to create next-generation tunnels, that’s an important breakthrough. With enough time, we should be able to figure out how to move the most people at the fastest speed with the least amount of environmental footprint. That won’t happen overnight of course and it may not have anything to do with Musk’s original vision. Yet, that’s how progress comes about, in fits and starts, often unpredictably, ending up far away from the idea that launched it but still in large part because of that idea.

The same goes for self-driving cars. If nothing else, 2018 has taught me that the vision that excites so many of us in the auto media these days – of a fully autonomous future where robo-taxis reign supreme and the personal car is as antiquated as a horse drawn buggy – is not a foregone conclusion. Autonomous cars are coming, no doubt about that but how they integrate with our messy lives is unclear. Last week my colleague Nathan Eddy reported that Waymo vehicles were the most accident prone of any AV company testing in Northern California. Yes, Waymo, the same company that has logged hundreds of thousands more miles than its next closest competitor and which just a few weeks ago launched the first commercial robo-taxi service in America. It turns out that 41% of its self-driving vehicles have gotten into accidents on Mountain View’s El Camino Real, a thoroughfare that, as it happens, cuts right through the heart of the town where I grew up and which, I can assure you, is not a crazy, hard-to-drive street.

Still, Waymo cars can’t seem to figure it out, even while moving at a snail’s pace. GM Cruise’s self-driving cars can’t figure it out either: 30% of its cars got into crashes. That’s the same GM Cruise that has promised a commercialized service in 2019. No wonder Waymo launched its service in very conservative form earlier this month. No wonder GM Cruise will probably do the same and no wonder that forty years from now the future of mobility probably won’t look like what we’re imagining today. Beautiful ideas make for messy realities. The real work is in finding the balance between the two.

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