The Boring Company - Travel Transformed? / by Erin Wade

A few weeks ago Elon Musk tweeted about a new project called The Boring Company. The tweet included a link to this video:

I'm a fan of Elon Musk and his projects, but initially, this seemed a little nuts to me. A lot of energy would be spent here on a project that has other, similar answers, available - why make sleds for cars when trains already exist? Why underground when highways and roads have already been built?

But I spent much of the past week driving on those very highways, all of it fortunately uneventful, but encountering and seeing what we are doing in that environment, and having time to think about those things. As this went on, the Boring Company concept started to make more and more sense.

Among the things that make transitioning people to public transportation challenging is the fact that people dislike changing modes of travel. When a trip involves a drive in the car to get on the train to get to the airport to fly to the place so that you can take a bus to rent a car... people quickly seek out ways to decrease the number of transitions from one mode to the next - e.g. Just drive to the airport, and rent another car when you get there. This is true even when the multiple transition trip would be shorter and ultimately take less effort (e.g. by offering multiple passive, non-driving legs to the trip). The Boring model offers the perception of one travel mode you get in the car when you leave, and arrive at your location in that same car.

This model removes the anxiety surrounding how one will get around once one arrives at their destination. As someone who enjoys using public transportation when I travel (having little opportunity to use it at home), I can testify that this is a real phenomenon. One must research and understand the public transit options where one is going before arriving to understand whether it will be sufficient for getting around, and whether one can adequately master it quickly into the duration of a trip. Public transit systems are different enough from city to city that knowledge of one definitely does not translate entirely to the next - understanding the subway system in Boston does not necessarily prepare you to use the L in Chicago. To make that more challenging, since these systems are oriented towards locals, by far their primary users, they often offer information on them that is abbreviated or incomplete because the regular users do not need a complete explanation to know which train or stop is the one that they need (not dissimilar from the maddening habit Chicogoans have of referring to the highways by their nicknames - the Dan Ryan, the Stevenson, etc - which no one outside the city uses).

It also removes many of the real world limitations that would come with the introduction of the self-driving car. This is a technology that we are increasingly led to believe is inevitable, and one that in some ways I embrace. But there are many real-world issues to sort out, particularly in the hypothetical transition period during which some cars on the road are self-driving, while others remain operated by humans. This doesn't come up much in the pie-in-the-sky discussions surrounding self-driving cars, but the reality is that, while a world in which every car is self-piloted may represent an automotive utopia, the one in which, say, 30, 50, or 70% are self-driving, and the remaining portion is not, is a very different thing. Imagine, if you will, if you were sharing the interstate highway today with horse and buggy and bicycle operators to picture what I mean.

Instead, the sled system is hypothetically platform agnostic. Whether I'm driving my dream of an ultra-modern Tesla electric car, my current day Honda Fit, or a classic 1965 Buick Riveria, I can simply pull up on the sled and ride along.

And, as the concept video shows briefly in the background, there can be multiple sled designs, with some of them being enclosed with seating - very much like a high-speed train car (allowing for Musk's Hyperloop concept). This would allow non-drivers - a growing group in our nation - to use the same transportation system as everyone else.

Because it is platform agnostic, it means that everyone who owns an automobile gets the benefit of the system as soon as it is in place, not having to wait for the price of self-driving technologies to reach a cost level the average person can afford. And assuming that it is electrically operated (which is suggested in the video, and by knowing a thing or two about Elon Musk), and that we continue to advance as we have been with the transition to alternative energy sources (not necessarily a safe assumption, I am aware), it represents a potential significant drop in the use of fossil fuels, even when used by gasoline or diesel vehicles. Most of the trip between locations would be on the sled, leaving the fossil fueled travel to the relatively short distances between the end of the transit line and the final destination. This opens the door for a potentially significant reduction in damage to the environment, as well as to reduced reliance on a type of energy largely sourced from extremely volatile regions of the world.

Reduced time with human operators at the wheel would make each trip safer. Driving is an inherently dangerous activity in which the bulk of the risk is presented by the human factor in the mix. While this approach doesn't necessarily entirely eliminate that human factor, it would significantly reduce the amount of time the human is operating the vehicle on longer trips. This decreases the risk statistically on its own, but also reduces factors like fatigue, since the vehicle operator would be able to rest and relax for large portions of the trip.

It also reduces or removes the factor of human attention to vehicle maintenance, which is a definite safety concern. One does not have to spend a lot of time on the interstate highways to see vehicles blowing smoke of an unhealthy color out of their tailpipes, or bouncing along on worn shocks for several hundred yards after a minor road imperfection, or with wheels frantically wavering, out of balance, within their wheel wells. The safety of your travel is hinged in part on the degree to which your on the road colleagues - the ones you swear at repeatedly (or is that just me?) - see to the care of their vehicles.

Which brings to mind the fact that this approach would also extend the life of your vehicle and decrease its maintenance costs. For each trip one takes that involves travel of any distance, the entire portion of that trip that involves your vehicle being on a sled is functionally equivalent to having it sit in the garage. This means no wear and tear on the vehicle for that portion of the trip - no tire wear, increased time between oil changes, and no mileage racking up on the odometer. Cars already have considerably longer lifespans than they used to, and for those who travel longer distances regularly, that lifespan would increase, and the cost of operation per trip would decrease, markedly (though one assumes there might be a cost to use the sled transit system, which might offset the latter portion a bit).

Upon initial exposure to Elon Musk's tweet, I have to admit that, at first I had a reaction similar to that of Daring Fireball's John Gruber. Still, as you can see above, as I worked through the thought experiment I could really see the value in this. Yes, it seems odd to work on a transit system for cars, but keep in mind there are people in those cars. This is a transit system concept that meets people where they are at now, but is flexible enough to allow for a transition to a future where cars may be less, or not at all, important.

Once I reached that point, where I was getting tied up in all of this was with the tunnels. It's the Boring Company because they are working on being able to reduce the cost and time involved in tunneling. And also because it's a very clever name, but the tunneling is the main point. It's all well and good to propose a tunneling system, but the benefits of the electric sled system could be realized above ground, and functionally integrated into our existing highway system with some modifications to those highways. So why add the complication of the tunnels?

I conducted the majority of this thought experiment while driving, and it was while driving that I began to realize where the benefits would come in with the tunnels - specifically while driving in the rain.

We deal with a wide variety of challenging weather conditions here in the Midwest - rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain, hail, not to mention construction season. These increase the hazard level considerably, as well as the travel time involved. The use of tunnels, as opposed to retrofitting a surface road, would essentially remove the weather (and construction) as a factor. This is a benefit (surface) trains - which I generally think of as the ideal replacement for our highway system - cannot claim. One only has to spend one multiple-hour delay sitting, unmoving, on the tracks because they are frozen, to realize this.

What's more, in rural areas like mine running the tunnels underground in place of the interstate highway system would free up thousands of miles and hundreds of thousands of acres of land for other purposes. In northern Illinois, for example, I39 alone, running from Normal to just north of Rockford, covers nearly 141 miles. An extremely rough estimate using GeoMeasure on a one-mile section of I39 suggests that a mile of the interstate - roadway, median, and and runoff area all-inclusive - represents about 37 acres of land. Assuming that is a fair sample, replacing I39 with a tunnel system would potentially free up over 5000 acres of land for other use. In more heavily populated areas it would remove the road noise and pollution effects of those highways as well.

So picture this, then, in the place of the interstate highway system. You drive from your home to a station that allows you to pull up on a sled, pull up an app on your phone, and tell it where you want to go. Then you sit back and relax, read a book, talk with your family, play a video game, watch a movie, take a nap, whatever, for the entire portion of your trip that involves the interstate drive. When you get to the station closest to your destination, you pull off the sled, and follow the GPS instructions for a few short minutes to arrive at your final destination.

Sounds very pleasant to me.