Last year, while enduring a particularly sluggish drive between his home in Bel Air and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Elon Musk had an epiphany. Having already conquered outer space and electric cars, Musk decided that his next venture would be a tunneling company.
Over the past week, Musk has started lifting the curtain on this mysterious project, which has been cheekily named "the Boring Company." At a TED talk last Friday, the billionaire engineer and entrepreneur unveiled a short video that illustrates a full buildout of his vision: an intricate network of freeway tunnels.
Watching this unfold, a friend remarked that he was reminded of the urban legend about NASA and its zero-gravity pens, as described in this passage from Scientific American:
"During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils."
Although this story has been debunked, it still carries a valid lesson: look for the simple solution first. Musk should consider this message.
Elon Musk, armed with brilliance and vast resources, looks to solve his stressful drive to work with a multi-billion dollar underground freeway system. Almost any other person, confonted with this same issue, would respond by leaving earlier, taking a different route, or even moving closer to their job.
He's proposed a convoluted solution for a problem that can be addressed with a simple lifestyle change. In other words, zero-gravity pens instead of pencils.
Obviously, the conceptual project depicted in the video is not meant to be taken literally, with its inexplicable array of elevators and sleds. But there will be people who start taking this idea seriously, if only because Elon Musk's name is attached. The same cult of personality even prompted calls for replacing the California high speed rail project with Hyperloop, despite no proof of concept and serious questions about the viability of the proposal.
This is not to say that "the Boring Company" could not represent a leap forward in terms of technology. Musk's ambitions also include building a tunnel boring machine that is both faster and less expensive than existing machines, such as those now in action beneath Downtown Los Angeles. Given his track record with SpaceX and Tesla, who's to say that he won't be successful?
But actually lessening traffic congestion requires addressing the factors that truly cause traffic congestion, such as limited housing inventory near major employment centers. Musk's underground freeway concept would treat the symptom, but do nothing to cure the disease. It is a fantasy that distracts us from pursuing real policy changes to address L.A.'s mobility woes.