Musk vs. the Monorail (Or, Why Teslas, Tunnels, and Space Ships Won’t Save Us)

    Self driving by Vectors Point From Noun Project

    Think Elon Musk holds the key to transportation’s future? Think again, recent articles in Intelligencer and Time suggest. Critic Alissa Walker, writing for Intelligencer, drills into the business practices of Musk’s The Boring Company. His pitch, in essence, is to convince beleaguered city officials that a tunnel network for cars will solve congestion woes. What they get, Walker suggests, is a host of unrealistic and ultimately broken promises.

    Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, described Musk’s proposal this way in a 2021 paper: “Suppose the city did it: it built a wild, ant farm-esque maze of tunnels below its streets and buildings. Suppose the tunnels, moreover, worked. On day one they pulled all the traffic off the city streets and moved it underground. What would happen? The next person thinking of going for a drive in L.A. would consider the busy tunnels, where elevators would lower them into the underbelly of the Earth and then fire them through the darkness, and then consider the city streets — dappled in sunlight, conveniently close to destinations, and now (thanks to the tunnels) empty of traffic. What would this prospective traveler do? She would choose, of course, to drive on the city streets. And so would others after her. Soon the streets would be congested.”

    The Time article, a think-piece by tech writer Paris Marx, questions Musk’s overall business motives and the progressive vision that he projects.

    He has a history of floating false solutions to the drawbacks of our over-reliance on cars that stifle efforts to give people other options. The Boring Company was supposed to solve traffic, not be the Las Vegas amusement ride it is now. As I’ve written in my book, Musk admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get legislators to cancel plans for high-speed rail in California—even though he had no plans to build it.

    Several years ago, Musk said that public transit was “a pain in the ass” where you were surrounded by strangers, including possible serial killers, to justify his opposition. But the futures sold to us by Musk and many others in Silicon Valley didn’t just suit their personal preferences. They were designed to meet business needs, and were the cause of just as many problems as they claimed to solve—if not more.

    Meanwhile, the success of Musk’s Tesla is undermined by the company’s unethical labor and supply-chain practices, dangerous glitches in its self-driving Autopilot technology, and increasingly questionable claims about the cars’ environmental benefits. Musk’s vision of the future may not be so bright.