The Boring Company’s project in Las Vegas was supposed to be the first real demonstration of Elon Musk’s vision for re-imagining public transportation in cities. Musk, who has criticized traditional public transit such as subways, contended he could do much better. He tweeted out visions in 2018 of glass pods, picking up relaxed passengers from thousands of stations the size of single parking spaces that blend into cities, and said it would look “a bit” like that. While more images are still to come, so far the rendered reality is turning out wildly differently.
Transportation experts say that images of Musk’s system that were released last week reflect failures to surmount basic issues that subways solved long ago. They caution that the design for his stations accommodating multiple vehicles appears to show significant drawbacks, such as inefficient use of space and what appears to be a level of inaccessibility for the disabled. However, they note that every detail of a project isn’t necessarily going to be included in a rendering, so it may not show the full scope of the project. More renderings are likely to surface as The Boring Company goes through more city reviews.
“These feel like the kind of renderings an architecture student would do for their one-semester project,” Christof Spieler, a lecturer at Rice University who researches transit and urban planning, told CNN Business. “I don’t see any evidence that this has really been thought through in terms of how it would function.”
Loop is intended to be a high-speed public transportation system that’s more like underground layers of highways than a subway system. Teslas would whisk passengers through tunnels at speeds up to 155 mph.
The Boring Company received the approval of the Las Vegas Planning Commission Tuesday night to build part of Loop, its intracity transportation service, in the city. It will seek the city council’s approval next month.
The company already completed two one-mile long tunnels on the grounds of the Las Vegas Convention Center in May. It hopes to expand the system throughout Las Vegas, with close to 50 stations at casinos and other attractions, according to a map the company has posted. The system at the convention center is scheduled to open in January 2021. The company has a $48 million contract with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to complete the work.
Spieler said Loop’s renderings don’t show a “station” in a conventional sense; instead, they appear to show taxi-like loading areas.
He cautioned that issues would likely arise such as cars jockeying past each other to pull in and out, and people walking out into the roadway to board both sides of the Teslas. This could impact how smoothly the system operates as ridership grows. The Boring Company has said it envisions 4,000 vehicles an hour moving through each main artery tunnel in the system. That would give a maximum capacity of approximately 16,000 riders per hour when paired with a human driver with a Model 3 and 24,000 in a Model X, compared to the 10,000 to 25,000 riders per hour of traditional bus or rail transit systems, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Using The Boring Company’s tunnels to move people in low-capacity vehicles like sedans and SUVs is “comically inefficient,” according to Gerry Tierney, who co-directs the mobility lab at Perkins&Will, which has designed transit stations in North America and the Middle East.
“This is not a transit system. It’s a system for driving electric vehicles underground,” said Tierney, adding that it would be as if one of the world’s largest transit systems, such as the London Underground, replaced all of its subway trains with cars.
A standard airport people mover, which has been mainstream since the 1970s, would board more quickly than the Loop system, Spieler said, as there’s no need to duck and sit as you enter. A passenger can also hold on to their luggage, rather than accessing a trunk.
“It seems like car-thinking applied to a transit problem that we already know how to solve,” Spieler said.
Musk described Loop last month as “basically just Teslas in tunnels, which is way more profound than it sounds.” He did not elaborate on why this was profound. He did say in September that “Tunnels under cities with self-driving electric cars will feel like warp drive.” The smaller-scale Loop appears to have grown out of the Hyperloop, Musk’s plan for a 600 mph train in a tunnel for intercity transportation, which has yet to come to fruition.
The Boring Company hopes Loop will one day reach 155 mph and use autonomous Teslas, though the project will initially use human drivers and will be capped at 35mph, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill has said.
The renderings also do not appear to show any barriers that would block an unauthorized car from entering the tunnel, Spieler said. However, final projects usually end up looking different than the conceptual renderings.
One conceptual rendering shows a set of steps leading to a station, where the Teslas are boarded. Spieler said the renderings don’t appear to give any thought to people in wheelchairs. The Boring Company did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including whether accessibility features would be part of the project. Elon Musk also did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A Las Vegas spokeswoman said its planning department will monitor whether there’s enough parking spaces for the disabled. City staff could recommend that the city council not approve the project, if code requirements aren’t met. An architectural review, environmental review and other reviews will examine if the project complies with all code requirements.
“Accommodations for the [disabled] will not be overlooked,” she said.
The company is seeking approval to build tunnels that are 4.6 miles long, and predominantly under city of Las Vegas rights of way, according to The Boring Company’s permit application. The tunnels will be about 30 feet below ground, the application says.
The Boring Company’s permit request to expand Loop in Las Vegas is technically for a monorail, although the system isn’t one. Las Vegas regulations for monorails aren’t technology specific, according to a city staff report on The Boring Company’s application, so the Loop system can be classified as a monorail. (Las Vegas already has a traditional monorail system operating in the city.)
The Boring Company’s ambitions appear to extend outside Las Vegas, however. It’s already pursuing projects in Los Angeles and on the East Coast. It promoted jobs in in Austin, Texas, which will be home to a new Tesla factory, less than a week after Austin voters passed a $7.1 billion plan to expand the growing city’s transit network. There are no indications that Tesla will be involved in the project.