Over the last decade, Elon Musk has been preaching his plans on improving urban mobility: replacing polluting, fossil fuel churning cars with electrified ones and swapping out (very) fallible human drivers with machine learning algorithms.
At first glance, not terrible ideas.
Now having lived in Los Angeles for the past few years, he’s noticed another problem with our urban mobility: traffic. So he has another solution: tunnels. Lots of them.
His solutions are dead on…….that is if you take his ideas and do the exact opposite.
WHAT ELON THINKS THE PROBLEM IS
Here are the problems Elon Musk sees with urban mobility: climate change, pollution, car crash deaths, and traffic. And are the ways he believes Tesla and The Boring Company will solve these issues:
Climate change: Electrify our existing mobility infrastructure. In other words, electrify cars and convert our electric grid to renewables (namely solar). No tailpipe emissions, no power-plant emissions, no more carbon emissions.
Pollution: Electrify cars and eliminate pollution.
Traffic: Increase existing road capacity and increase overall supply of roads with a combination of autonomy and a whole lot of tunnels.
Car crash deaths: Take the error prone human out of the equation and dramatically reduce car crash deaths.
Giving credit where credit is due, here is what Elon is getting right about urban mobility (we’re no Elon Musk haters. In fact we wrote this extensive piece about our deep respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished while individually and with nuance analyzing his various initiatives and philosophies):
Climate change: Electrifying cars and transitioning to solar power will somewhat decrease overall emissions.
Pollution: Eliminating tailpipe emissions will dramatically reduce urban pollution.
Traffic: Autonomy and tunnels will temporarily make a bit of difference in traffic.
Car crash deaths: Autonomy, if deployed wisely, will start reducing car crashes and begin saving many lives.
HOW ELON’S IDEAS WILL NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEMS HE’S OUTLINED AND WILL MAKE SOME OF THEM WORSE
The problems with Elon’s efforts are numerous and substantial. First, while some of his solutions will make a dent in urban mobility issues, they do not solve the problems they claim to solve, and worse, overally will do much more harm than good. Second, the scope of the problem is much, much larger than Elon Musk recognizes, or chooses to publicly admit.
Here is how his solutions, for the most part, do not solve the challenges he himself has outlined and how they may make things worse:
Climate Change: While electrifying cars and turning the grid green will decrease emissions to a degreen, these efforts are no climate solutions by any means. Any automobile, gas or electric, take TONS of carbon to manufacture. In fact, manufacturing a new car is so carbon intensive that it is about the equivalent of driving an old car! So even an electric vehicle with 100% renewable electricity STILL only halves the carbon emissions of cars.
Then there is the question of infrastructure emissions. Cars are giant heavy objects. To support millions of them, both during use and when parked, takes an enormous amount of infrastructure and concrete. And concrete is notoriously carbon intensive. “The concrete industry is one of two largest producers of carbon dioxide.”
Pollution: It’s well known that gasoline cars emit pollution via their tailpipes. What is almost completely unknown is the fact that all cars, gas AND electric, emit tiny particulates. Because cars are so damn heavy, they require enormous tires which wear out over time. Where does all that rubber go? Unfortunately, in the air and to your lungs.
Traffic: Solving traffic with autonomy and tunnels is one of Elon’s most fallacious claims.
Cars are the lowest bandwidth mobility technology we’ve ever devised. As a comparison, a 12 ft lane can move 14,000 people on bikes or 43,000 people with rapid transit buses per hour. Cars achieve a paltry 2000 people per lane, per hour.
Cars are the 56k modem of urban mobility. Autonomous vehicles will only add a bit more capacity in the short term. And tunnels, according to Elon will, at best, double this capacity, to 4000 people per hour. It’s a DSL copper wire stopgap to a problem requiring high speed fiber optic cables.
What’s worse? More car capacity leads to more car use. This phenomenon is widely known among urban designers. It even has a name: induced demand. As you increase road capacity, sprawl is encouraged and people drive more, leading to more traffic.
Increasing road capacity is not a new idea. It’s been tried over and over with the same results, the dreaded 405 expansion being the most recent example, with travel times INCREASING post expansion.
Call them innovative. Call them 3D infrastructure. Elon’s tunnels are simply adding more lanes. Literally more of the same.
His claim of theoretically unlocking unlimited capacity is still problematic. First, even with boring cost reductions, digging is expensive. And second, there will always be bottlenecks entering and exiting tunnels. Even if these problems are overcome, induced demand itself knows no bounds. So levels of car use will always be chasing road capacity, never actually allowing for that magical goal of “unlimited” capacity.
THE TRUE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
Energy efficiency: Cars are the least efficient mode of mobility invented by humans. Bill Gates and others constantly talk about our energy problem and the need for an “energy miracle.”
Yet our so-called energy problem has two sides: production and consumption. When we squander enormous amounts of energy moving 4-6 tons of metal whose sole purpose is to move 100-200 lb humans, of course its going to seem like don’t have enough energy production! It doesn’t matter where that energy comes from: dirty fossil fuels, solar, wind, nuclear. At the end of the day if our cities are car-centric, we will be wasting billions of dollars worth of energy needlessly shuffling billions of tons of metal back and forth.
Immobility and health issues: We’re calling this the Wall-E problem. Instead of a healthy walk or bike ride, more and more people on the planet are simply sitting in their cars. Immobility causes all kinds of detrimental health impacts: Blood clots, hormone imbalance, heartburn, kidney stones, ulcers, depression, osteoporosis, back pain, etc. This decrease in health causes all sorts of havoc from personal/emotional to societal/economic.
Affordability: Cars are expensive. And when cities are designed around cars, it forces people to buy one in order to get around or else be relegated to poorly funded public transit, miles of walking due to car-caused low-density sprawl, or biking next to speeding, texting cars, risking their life. Why should someone have to spend at least $20,000 for the basic human right to simply move around in their city comfortably, a right any city dweller has had for millennia? Car-centrism puts comfortable and safe mobility access out of reach of millions of citizens.
Cities choked by parking: Fun fact: “In LA, land dedicated to parking is larger than Manhattan.”
Let. That. Sink. In.
We have an economic dead zone the size of Manhattan rotting inside our city. It’s why rent is so high. It’s why homelessness is so bad.
Urban/communal decay and lonliness: By putting everyone in little boxes, cars erode societal fabric. They separate us from our community, our neighbors, our streets, and out communities.
Reduced local business spending: Let’s start with this heading: “Study shows that people who walk and bike to main streets spend 40 percent more than people who drive.” This isn’t some one-off study. It’s quite a typical finding.
Another way of looking at it: cars decrease local business spending by 40%, which then shrinks local city coffers, making us all poorer.
Evil oil wars: While EVs paired with a clean grid will help with decreasing our oil dependence, manufacturing and infrastructure still require immense amounts of oil. And dependence on foreign oil has proved morally and financially disastrous, fueling horrendous foreign policy decisions and oil wars.
Manufacturing and infrastructure oil aside, shifting to electric vehicles will simply require making a deal with a different devil, simply trading one set of terrible foreign policy decisions for others. Why? Lithium. China controls most of the world’s lithium.
IT’S THE CAR, STUPID
Most, if not all of these issues stem from one primary physics problem: the enormous size and weight of private automobiles.
In other words, it’s the car, stupid.
This is quite baffling since Elon often touts his deep knowledge of physics, frequently recommending people study the subject. He should take a page from his own physics book!
What’s even crazier?
Elon Musk has famously critiqued California’s high speed rail as being the “the slowest bullet train in the world at the highest cost per mile. They’re going for records in all the wrong ways.”
Yet Elon Musk is doubling down on the most expensive, the slowest, the most energy intensive, the lowest bandwidth, the least healthy, the most wasteful, the most deadly form of transportation we have.
Talk about going for records in all the wrong ways!
LET’S TURN ELON’S SCRIP ON IT’S HEAD
In our next post we will discuss how to solve urban mobility by turning Elon’s plans upside-down.
- Instead of digging underground like mole people, we should aim to soar.
- Instead of giant, heavy, slow, deadly cars, we should fly free using super lightweight, green, efficient, fun, and affordable vehicles.