Why Elon Musk wants to dig tunnels under Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES -- His commute must be a nightmare. Elon Musk said traffic made him late for his own event, a faux forum for his high speed subterranean transportation venture, the Boring Company.
The multi-hyphenate entrepreneur known for his electric car company, Tesla, billed the night as a public show and tell of how he plans to break the yoke of "soul destroying traffic." Musk has bragged that his underground public transport system, called Loop, would charge riders $1 and cut crosstown commutes to record lows.
In a city obsessed with fame and wealth, Musk has both, assets equipped with a built-in public forgiveness for eccentricity -- including tardiness.
Lately, not everyone's been so forgiving. Musk made headlines this month with an outburst on a Tesla earnings call wherein he insulted analysts after they questioned the company's cash hemorrhage, aggressive behavior that caused the Tesla's flagging stock to fall further.
His plan for Loop -- a zero-emission, high speed rail project from the Boring Company that Musk says will safely ferry cars, bikers and pedestrians up to 150 mph across town -- sounds like it should have been a sure thing in a stalled city. Instead, some residents and city officials are voicing opposition to Musk's plans -- for the disruption to their wealthy enclaves, the potential for construction increasing traffic and Musk's track record of going around some regulations.
"If you do hundreds of tunnels and have dozens of small stations woven throughout the fabric of the city, you can actually, without even the city appearing different, you could solve the transport problem," Musk said at the event, held at the Leo Baeck Temple, a synagogue across the street from the Getty Museum in the upscale Sepulveda Pass neighborhood.
Musk, 46, has made his unconventional approach to growth a hallmark. With Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, and a new media venture called Thud, the South African engineer already has his hands full. Answering the rising criticism of Boring Company's plans -- without really answering these open questions -- was the onus for the event.
"They haven't explained enough to us what it is they're doing and what they want to do to allow them to build tunnels under our city," said Thomas Small, the mayor of Culver City, where Musk's test tunnel was originally slated to run. "They have a tendency of moving fast and think it's easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission."
The Loop town hall was billed as a public event. But it was heavily curated toward fans -- tickets, tight security, questions submitted in advance, an attempt at detached cool that came off as cult of personality control. There would be no grandstanding or microphone bogarting here.
Musk was about 30 minutes late, but the group, which ranged from head down high schoolers to Tesla loyalists and local startup founders, plus dozens of Musk's employees, seemed unfazed.
When he finally arrived, Musk took the stage in all black denim. He was joined by Steve Davis, the de facto head of the Boring Company, and the company mascot, Gary the snail, sandwiched between the men.
"The fundamental issue that we face is so much of our life is 3-D," he said, staring into the crowd. "And then we go to this 2D plane of streets. The consequence is obvious, you're losing an entire dimension."
That traffic must have been killer. Musk got some laughs from the audience at times, but his mumbling raised the question if he was trying to be funny.
Musk revealed new details, including that the all-electric pods could transport up to 16 passengers at a time and take passengers from Downtown to the LAX airport in about 8 minutes. He alluded to parking lot sized stations and perhaps linking to existing public transport lines, a possibility now that he's created a partnership with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, known as Metro, the agency operating the county's public transportation.
He stressed that the project's test tunnels would not be detrimental to the city's residents or its environment and that the Boring Company is not drilling under any homes or businesses. But the details on how that is possible -- or how the company plans to make money if they only charge $1 per rider, plus how it will solve the city's transportation problem if only 16 people can ride even multiple tubes at a time -- weren't addressed in real detail at the event.
"We will turn a profit by making more money than we spend," the company said via email.
Then there's the true environmental impact. In April, the Los Angeles City Council's Public Works committee fast-tracked a test tunnel that exempted the project from the California Environmental Quality Act, which shaved months, possibly years from the project's timeline. That decision has allowed Musk's company to begin construction on a 2.7 mile test tunnel.
Since then, a pair of Westside residents' associations filed suits alleging the exemption violates state law. They also say granting piecemeal project approval is also illegal.
LA's Public Works Committee decided to skip the initial review because team Boring crafted a 1,500 page internal assessment. "There's still a significant permitting process and environmental review ahead [for the test tunnel]," clarified Paul Koretz, a Councilmember who serves on the Public Works Committee.
What both sides failed to mention is the point of environmental reviews, even for pilot programs-independence-the public is left to take the word of a company who has everything to gain from tunneling ahead. During the event, Musk said he would submit to a full environmental review after finishing the test. He also said the dirt hauled away may be used for low-cost housing, but wouldn't elaborate.
Los Angeles is a sprawl of 88 incorporated cities and residents who rarely see eye-to-eye. Culver City's outgoing mayor, who preceded Small, wrote a letter to the committee questioning the choice to bypass the environmental impact. Culver City then nixed plans for the test tunnel. Now it's going to stop just short of city limits.
"If you want to get downtown, the beach, or go north to south you pretty much have to go to Culver City," says Small, who didn't attend the Loop event.
In an Instagram post a week ago, Musk indicated he was close to being finished with a tunnel under Los Angeles, only a few months from public use. In fact that was a video of a tunnel in the city of Hawthorne, on private land at SpaceX, and not for public use. Last year, Musk received permission to drill a 2 mile test between Crenshaw Boulevard and 120th Street.
Whatever Musk does build will need approval from Metro. Metro's CEO, who didn't attend the event, has publicly declared that it is collaborating with Musk's company. But both sides have been short on details although Metro is working its own high speed corridor in the vicinity Musk intends to build. How Musk's company fits into their plans remains another unknown.
On the way out of the event, a couple discussed Musk's vision. "You don't really think this'll actually happen, do you?" one said to the other.
They both laughed and got in their Prius.