what is elon musk?

Elon’s Biggest Boondoggle

Why did the world’s richest man spend the past five years trying to sell cities a hole in the ground?

Illustration: Cold War Steve
Illustration: Cold War Steve

The worst place to be in Los Angeles during rush hour is the Sepulveda Pass, where a ten-lane segment of the 405 freeway runs through a mountain range. In 2016, Tesla’s Elon Musk was stuck there one day when he conjured up the idea to “start digging” the 16 or so miles from his Bel Air mansion to the headquarters of his rocket company, SpaceX, in Hawthorne, a small city near LAX. Two years later, hundreds of people voluntarily drove themselves to the Sepulveda Pass on a Thursday evening to watch Musk publicly unveil his plan to burrow a tunnel underneath the freeway that would end, in his words, “soul-destroying traffic.”

The audience gathered at the Leo Baeck Temple that night, many of them young men wearing hoodies branded with Tesla and SpaceX, saw two empty chairs on a small stage. Between them was a silver stool with a plastic pineapple that housed a snail named Gary, after the SpongeBob SquarePants character, an excavation expert who served as the Boring Company’s mascot. Nearly a half-hour after the designated starting time, Musk and the Boring Company’s president, Steve Davis, finally joined Gary onstage. Musk apologized. Traffic, he said to laughter. “The reason we were late is that we were stuck on the 405.”

His pitch deck — first shown during an April 2017 TED talk — depicted a city block where Teslas could pull into parking spaces and be lowered underground on shiny silver lifts that could also, somehow, propel the vehicles along tracks through cavernous subterranean spaces. The animation then zoomed out to reveal hundreds of Teslas, all traveling along the familiar curves of freeways, only underground, and navigating directly to their destination at top speeds, as Musk claimed, of 130 mph.

Musk has never once proposed a mere tunnel. What he has proposed are infinite tunnels, a “3-D network of tunnels to alleviate congestion.” What Musk was officially selling the Sepulveda Pass audience was dozens and dozens of tunnels, stacked in layers below the city like a human habitrail. “Highways are at the outer limit of their capacity,” said Musk, as Gary the snail oozed beside him in agreement. “For tunnels, you can have hundreds of lanes. There’s no real limit.” No one that night asked how, say, building ten lanes of far more expensive tunnels would be any different than building ten lanes of freeway, which is what L.A. had already tried right there on the 405, spending $1.3 billion in 2013 to add one extra lane in each direction. It ended up luring so many more cars that it made rush-hour travel times even longer.

Instead, someone asked, via a preapproved question: When the tunnels were finished, would there be a party? Yes, Musk said. Everyone cheered.

Elon Musk, as understood by

A baffled, dazzled, incredulous public.

Hollywood.

.

The towns and cities sold on a hyperloop.

His romantic partners.

Students at the tiny private school he inspired.

His most ardent supporters.

Wall Streeters who bet against him.

His 18,000 tweets.

His style sense.

I really wanted Musk to be right. How to get people out of their gas-guzzling, freeway-bound, single-passenger vehicles is the holy grail of transportation experts. But they agree that Musk’s plan simply won’t do what he says it will. 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.”

What Manville is describing is called induced demand, and the evidence of its failure is right in front of us in the form of widened yet still congested highways, which is why transportation planners have stopped adding lanes and are moving to solutions like congestion pricing. Musk doesn’t believe in induced demand; he recently called it “one of the single dumbest notions I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” City officials all over the country appear to agree, continuing to side with Musk over the advice of their own planners, starting with L.A., where in 2018 the city council voted to exempt the Boring Company’s Sepulveda Pass tunnel from environmental review, even though the city had not granted any such exemption to the projects of the local transit authority, Metro, which was building high-capacity subway lines. For Musk, the council would make an exception; the idea was “revolutionary,” said former L.A. councilmember David Ryu. Musk claimed to have had “promising conversations” with L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, who publicly endorsed tunnels from downtown’s Union Station to LAX and tunnels to Dodger Stadium. The Boring Company produced a map of a 20-station network of a proposed underground transportation system — the L.A. Loop — with customized 16-passenger “pods” that would make the system accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and people who use wheelchairs. The proposal also included a promise to pay for all of it.

It’s not hard to understand why a city would welcome Musk’s enthusiasm, says Joshua Schank, managing principal at InfraStrategies and senior fellow at the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies, who was Metro’s chief innovation officer at the time. “It is very appealing when you are an executive at a public-transit agency and someone says, ‘I will pay for this new piece of infrastructure and assume all the risks,’ especially given the budget constraints under which these agencies typically operate,” he told me. Investors like the idea, too. Earlier this year, the Boring Company announced it had raised $675 million in funding, putting its valuation at $5.7 billion.

Not everyone has fallen for it. In June of 2018, Musk paraded through the streets of Chicago with former mayor Rahm Emanuel, celebrating an agreement for an 18-mile tunnel from the city’s Loop (that’s the neighborhood, not the Teslas in tunnels) to O’Hare Airport. The estimated cost was $1 billion (Musk was paying, of course), and tunneling would begin within a year. But in December 2018, a delegation of elected Chicago officials traveled to L.A. for the opening of the test tunnel at SpaceX headquarters. As promised, there was a party; Grimes was in attendance, and Gary the snail was there, too (although it was, in all likelihood, not the same Gary). Musk stood in the green glow of the tunnel opening like an extraterrestrial delivering bad news as he returned to Earth: The team had run out of time, he explained; there were no pods and no electric skates. Guests were given stomach-turning rides in Tesla Model Xs that topped out at around 40 mph through an unpaved 1.14-mile tunnel. The Chicago contingency was not impressed. “A little bumpy,” alderman Gilbert Villegas told the Chicago Tribune. “There has to be a lot more questions answered before we can begin a type of project like that.” Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was even more cynical, telling The Verge, “If you look at Elon Musk’s career — he comes off as a grifter.” When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor, she promptly killed the tunnel.

Meanwhile, in L.A., a lawsuit filed by mansion owners, wary of what the tunneling would do to their infinity pools, stalled progress on the Sepulveda Pass. Ground was never broken on tunnels there, or to LAX, or to Dodger Stadium. Until last month, Musk had one other L.A.-area project in the works: a 4-mile tunnel in Ontario, California, that the Boring Company said would cost $85 million. When the Boring Company finally backed out of the project, another contractor estimated the project would actually cost $492 million.

The first fully operational Boring Company tunnel opened in Las Vegas in 2021, where the Boring Company’s first paying customer, the city’s convention-and-tourism bureau, shelled out $49 million collected from hotel-room taxes for a pair of 0.8-mile tunnels from one end of the Las Vegas Convention Center to the other. There are three places to enter the tunnels: two boarding areas under shade canopies in parking lots and one underground station in the middle. (There’s only one, Boring Company officials have said, because excavating an underground station is prohibitively expensive.) Passengers get into a human-driven Tesla — there are no ADA accommodations in the system for people who use wheelchairs or mobility devices — and descend into the tunnel on a conventional ramp. There are no car elevators, no pods, and no skates, and the Teslas, which will be driven by humans for the foreseeable future, can’t go faster than 40 mph. “It’s basically just Teslas in tunnels at this point, which is way more profound than it sounds,” Musk tweeted shortly before it opened. The roadway is more smoothly paved now, but there is fundamentally no difference from what Musk first debuted in 2018. What he has built is a $49 million conventional parking garage with a Tesla valet system. But the colored lights are pretty.

Officials from other cities now come to Vegas to see the Boring Company’s proof of concept. They also hear from the company directly.

In 2020, Musk uprooted the entire Boring Company operation and moved it to Texas, where a former horse-ranching field in the exurban Austin town of Bastrop has been transformed into a new test tunneling site, complete with temporary housing for workers. The Boring Company is currently hiring for dozens of local positions, and employees travel around the state offering to build tunnels for cities, utility companies, and even pedestrians.

But instead of sending Musk to make the pitches, the Boring Company has a new strategy: urging city employees to suggest tunneling themselves. After both Austin and San Antonio officials were reported to be mulling tunnels, the Boring Company’s Brian Gettinger sent an email to the city manager of Kyle, Texas, a tiny suburban city on the southern edge of Austin: “With the leaked articles about ATX and SATX there is enough in public space for you to start having ‘what if’ conversations with folks, just don’t implicate me or TBC directly. TBC and I are most useful operating in the background, not in the front of the parade.” Kyle’s city manager replied, “Looks solid to me.” The city approved a pedestrian tunnel nine months later.

The hardest sell still comes from Musk via the tunneling lies routinely dispatched to his 100 million Twitter followers, such as in April, when Musk tweeted, “Underground tunnels are immune to surface weather conditions (subways are a good example).” (New York City would like a word.) “There are plenty of examples to draw from,” says Paris Marx, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of the book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, “but the one that stands out in my mind is the proposal in Fort Lauderdale, where officials went to the Boring Company to get a cheap commuter-train tunnel, believing Musk’s rhetoric about bringing down tunneling costs, but ended up with an agreement for a tunnel for Teslas to the beach.”

In June, Fort Lauderdale’s city commission discussed a proposal to give the Boring Company $375,000 in public money for a feasibility study to dig tunnels under an intracoastal waterway, which the Boring Company told the city would cost $10 million to $15 million per mile. But that quote was far too low for a project that would be among the most technically challenging engineering tasks in the world, and on a scale the Boring Company had never attempted before, a local tunneling expert warned at the hearing. The mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Dean Trantalis, who shared photos of himself in Vegas — Florida elected officials in particular have fallen over themselves to associate with Musk and the Boring Company — called the tunneling expert a “naysayer” and dismissed his claims with false statements. “If you were to go to Las Vegas, the project that they have done there and that is operational is all underwater,” said Trantalis. (It is not.) “It goes from the airport to the convention center.” (It does not.) When the tunneling expert pushed back, Trantalis became defensive. “All I know is that I rode in the tunnel and I rode in a Tesla, and it was a wonderful experience, and I’m not the only one who did it,” Trantalis snapped. Fort Lauderdale’s city council approved the proposal. The same week, a permit was filed for the Boring Company to begin tunneling in Austin, just two months after a group of Austin city employees visited Vegas.

Also in June, Las Vegas became the first city in the U.S. to approve Boring Company tunnels for public use, part of a proposed 34-mile tunnel network with at least 55 stations throughout Downtown Vegas and the Strip. If built, it would be the largest such network in the country. But this project is not only funded by the Boring Company — it will be paid for by developers of casinos who want to put a station on their properties. At the city-council meeting, Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman seemed eager to approve the project — “I assure you the enthusiasm is down here,” she said — but still, she wondered: Wouldn’t a one-way tunnel of traffic just get clogged with cars, a phenomenon already witnessed in the convention-center tunnel? The city’s infrastructure director, Mike Janssen, who said he had been working closely with the Boring Company, seemed ready for this question. “Every vehicle they can take from the surface and drop into this tunnel, that is ultimately going to free up traffic capacity,” he said. “If the single-lane tunnel fills up, there is the ability to add another tunnel, and so just like any other roadway, just like any other highway, you can add additional capacity by adding additional tunnels.”

Musk didn’t even need to come to the meeting. His script is now being delivered by city officials. And it was exactly what Manville had predicted. “If we say, ‘Just add another lane,’ it gets expensive. If we say, ‘Just add another tunnel,’ it implies an enormous expense,” Manville told me. “It is the same old story. So what is the business plan here?” What would address traffic in Vegas — and reduce a whole bunch of other problems, including air pollution, carbon emissions, and pedestrian fatalities — is the same actually boring solution that has worked in dozens of cities all over the world, says Manville: implementing congestion pricing for drivers traveling on existing roads and providing more alternatives to low-capacity vehicles. Vegas’s regional transportation agency recently rejected a popular light-rail proposal, citing the ever-distant promise of autonomous vehicles to relieve congestion, while an existing seven-station monorail with planned expansions to the airport and downtown filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020. The monorail is now owned by the convention-and-tourism bureau, and as part of that acquisition, a noncompete agreement was removed that prohibited other transportation systems from being developed in the monorail’s right of way — the same right of way now being granted to the Boring Company.

On the northern end of the Strip, the next Vegas Loop station opened in June at Resorts World, built for an undisclosed cost by the Genting Group, a Malaysian-based corporation that’s one of the world’s largest casino developers. Signs adjacent to the blackjack tables direct passengers down an escalator and into an actual parking garage, where, for a $1.50 ticket purchased via app (yes, they do accept Dogecoin), convention-goers can board a Tesla and travel through a tunnel to the convention center across a couple streets. It is a journey that can be made by a seven-minute stroll on the surface. As I walked there, more efficient ways to move people swirled around me: scooters, bikes, golf carts, tiny electric trucks, ADA-accessible vans, double-decker transit buses, even a free shuttle bus called, although likely not for long, the Downtown Loop. Every few minutes, the city’s monorail glided silently overhead. And in the far corner of the parking lot, Musk’s Boring Company keeps digging a deeper and deeper hole, a tunnel that will never have an ending, with a line of idling trucks shimmering in the heat like a mirage, waiting to haul the dirt away.

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Elon’s Biggest Boondoggle