Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

The future of personal transportation is getting more exciting each day: driverless cars, flying cars, and now electric cars speeding autonomously through a network of tunnels.

Elon Musk is betting that the solution to urban traffic congestion is a ride through a series of tunnels with elevator stations.

Musk’s Boring Company undertook this ambitious project on a test basis. Now it has to perfect the concept and sell it to large cities.

Video Spotlight: The following videos are part of the CBS News article:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Test drive Elon Musk’s new tunnel
  • Elon Musk: Tunnels are “exceptionally safe”
  • How Elon Musk’s tunnel works
  • Elon Musk on why he’s boring tunnels

This post is based on the CBS News article, Elon Musk and Gayle King Test Drive the Tunnel He Hopes Will Solve L.A. Traffic, by CBS News, December 19, 2018. Image source: Shutterstock / Herdik Herlambang.

Discussion Questions:

1. How does the transportation system envisioned by Elon Musk work?

Guidance: Electric, autonomous cars are placed on electric skates or, preferably, are equipped with alignment wheels. These wheels, which can be retracted for driving on regular roads, extend sideways to brace the car against the tunnel.

From the road, the cars go down on an elevator that stops in front of the entrance of a tunnel.  The cars then go through the tunnel on autopilot. At the end of the tunnel, the cars are brought back to the road on an elevator.

In the future, the speed through the tunnel may reach 150 mph. Like flying cars, the tunnel system relies on a 3-D transportation network.

2. Why is there traffic congestion? How does the tunnel system solve the problem?

Guidance: The traffic system is essentially a queuing system, with capacity determined by its output rate. Bottlenecks occur when the rate of vehicles entering the system strains the capacity of the system. Congestion is especially severe when unexpected events (e.g. accidents) arise and further decrease the capacity of the system.

Musk’s concept increases the capacity of the existing road system with a network of tunnels. The autonomous technology prevents cars from running into each other and blocking traffic.

3. Why are gas-powered vehicles not allowed in the tunnels? Does this restriction affect the viability of the tunnel system?

Guidance: Because the cars are in a tunnel, CO2 emissions from gasoline would be particularly toxic. Therefore, only electric cars can be allowed in the system. Musk is betting that electric cars will be more popular over time (see the percentage of electric cars already sold in Norway).

Today, the tunnel system concept may be too restrictive to be cost-effective, and its future will largely depend on regulations at the national, state, and local levels.

4. What are the environmental implications of digging tunnels?

Guidance: As the article mentions, no environmental impact review was conducted before the project was undertaken in Hawthorne, CA. Musk dismisses the risks posed by digging tunnels in earthquake-prone California, but he is not a geologist and scientific evidence must be produced to support his claims.

The project did come up with an environmental and economic solution to the typical issue of hauling dirt miles away from a dig site: they turned the dirt from the test tunnel into bricks produced on-site, and sold them at 10 cents a brick.


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