Chicago City Officials Swallow Elon Musk’s Kool-Aid

Photo: The Boring Company
Photo: The Boring Company

From reading interviews with members of the Chicago delegation that attended Tuesday’s press event for Elon Musk’s new 1.14-mile tunnel in the Los Angeles area, you’d think that the demonstration was a roaring success that bodes well for his scheme to build luxury express service from the Loop to O’Hare. During the demo, an Indianapolis 500-trained driver took attendees on bumpy rides through the passageway at up to 53 mph in a Tesla Model X electric car.

In June Chicago officials selected Musk to create the airport transit service, indicating confidence in his proposal to to dig twin tunnels between the Loop’s Block 37 and the airport and shoot people through them at 125-150 mph in 8-16-person pods using “electric skate” technology.

Deputy Chicago mayor Bob Rivkin told the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that after Tuesday’s test he’s more confident than ever that Musk can pull off his O’Hare plan. “You just get a sense of the simplicity of the whole thing,” he said. “It’s a tunnel with a Tesla in it… [The] notion that this is some kind of crazy, untried technology is just misinformed.” Musk has not actually produced a prototype of the pods he hopes to use in Chicago.

Rivkin acknowledged that Musk is controversial. The tech mogul has exhibited increasingly erratic behavior this year, from committing financial fraud on Twitter, to baselessly accusing one of the Thai cave rescuers of pedophilia.

But the deputy mayor told Spielman, “There is no doubt that he and his team are brilliant engineers and they get stuff done. The application of these re-energized and re-imagined tunneling techniques would be transformative for Chicago… Our visit here has confirmed for me what a fantastic project [the O’Hare express] would be for Chicago.”

Alderman Matt O’Shea (19th), chair of City Council’s aviation committee, told Spielman he was similarly impressed. Other Chicago alderman who attended the launch included Carrie Austin (34th) chair of the budget committee and Gilbert Villegas (36th) chair of the Latino Caucus.

Rivkin argued that while it’s possible that the airport project would be a failure, Musk would be on the hook for all costs, so it’s a no-risk proposition for taxpayers. However, former Chicago aviation chief Ginger Evans previously acknowledged that public money would likely be used for building stations for the O’Hare express. Preliminary planning for the project has already diverted a considerable amount of city staff time and attention from arguably more pressing neighborhood transit needs. And after Toronto’s recently built luxury airport service showed dismal ridership numbers, the fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9, at a cost of up to $20 million annually in taxpayer subsidies.

Moreover, despite the city officials’ glowing reports about Tuesday’s tunnel debut, by any objective standard the event was a failure. As noted by Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt, Musk himself admitted that the rough concrete test track, with its bumpy ride, wasn’t ready for prime time. “We kind of ran out of time,” he said. While the press event was originally supposed to feature “autonomous electric skates” carrying 16-20 people, journalists were surprised when the test turned out to merely involve riding in a car with a driver.

And while Musk had previously claimed that his Boring Company’s proprietary digging technology would speed up the digging process 14 fold as compared to conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent, it’s not clear that he’s actually broken any new ground here. In response to Musk’s boast that he built a 6,000-foot tunnel for $10 million, the Transport Politic blogger Yonah Freemark tweeted, “It’s remarkable how cheap Musk’s tunnel was to build… until you realize it only allows movement in one direction, it’s 12 feet wide, it has no actual stations, and it doesn’t include emergency exits. Details.”

When Chicago officials view a rough car ride in a relatively short, narrow tunnel as groundbreaking transportation, it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability to make sound decisions about the O’Hare express in the future.

  • Mcass777

    It was interesting to watch the bumpy ride thru the tunnel at 40 MPH and wonder how this scaled down, semi related version would translate to full speed. I could not keep thinking of the huge bottle neck that would be created at the head end or tail end of the system. Wouldn’t the elevator and the entrance/exit to the elevator need to be moving at an equally fast speed intaking and discharging cars or have a huge staging area to keep up with blistering pace of the cars?? A closed loop of pods makes way more sense and the pods are what Chicago would get so I don’t know… But hearing the Bob Rivkin speak of the simplicity is a bit scary. The tunnel might be simple but all the stuff in it and around seem like it’s going to be way more advanced than a car driven by a pro in this test. The only thing this really proved is that he can build a tunnel and hook up an elevator to it. Elon showed them a bike and told the city folk it was a space capsule – and I think they agreed!

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think we’re supposed to imagine this: https://cityliftparking.com/build-not-build-parking-automated-parking-lifts-changed-rules, except with a flawlessly operational model in the style of one of those “house/car/city of the future” Jetson cartoons.

  • Jeremy

    The express to O’Hare should be a point of focus in the mayoral race. Candidates need to be on the record now about whether they support this project or not.

  • Robert Kania

    Whatever man. New technology takes time and testing. I’m sure he will improve on it. Besides, there were peole that said the elevated line couldn’t be built.

  • bggb

    There’s nothing new here. It’s a low density system of low occupancy vehicles.

    It is physically impossible to merge, move, exit and organize cars with enough speed that they could ever get close to the efficiency of a decent bus or subway system.

    This was a media stunt with no current or future value.

  • bggb

    I could not keep thinking of the huge bottle neck that would be created at the head end or tail end of the system.

    Exactly. There is no way to bend the laws of space and time to the point that such a merge or exit system could ever run efficiently or comparably to decent bus or train.

  • bggb

    Deputy Chicago mayor Bob Rivkin told the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that after Tuesday’s test he’s more confident than ever that Musk can pull off his O’Hare plan. “You just get a sense of the simplicity of the whole thing,” he said. “It’s a tunnel with a Tesla in it… [The] notion that this is some kind of crazy, untried technology is just misinformed.”

    We are governed by morons.

  • salsaman

    This is an interesting demo, and we should be digging more tunnels for transportation. And there may be a lot of reasons why current types of systems are overburdened by regulations. But this demonstration doesn’t demonstrate much. Yona Freemark’s comments are spot on: this is a tunnel without *any* of the hard parts of tunnel-based transportation systems. I don’t see how this is a successful demonstration on any level, except for Musk’s ability to get people behind his starry-eyed pitch.

  • what_eva

    Yonah hit the nail on the head about the dishonesty in the “cost”. The vast majority of the cost of a project like the Second Avenue Subway in NYC is stations, not tunnels. Comparing the full project cost per mile to your tiny tunnel with no stations is dishonest. That appears to be par for the course for Musk.

  • Neil.C

    Musk’s excuse on the bumpy ride makes more sense than most of his excuses – they had issues with making the surfaces smooth that needed to be worked out before the final product was ready. I’m okay with that, engineering issues like this happen from time to time and deadlines were probably pretty tight.

    As for the final product, its a joke, little understanding of what makes transit appealing as an alternative to driving.

  • BlueFairlane

    Thing is, any construction project, no matter how small or simple or commonplace, is always going to be affected by that kind of engineering issue. That’s one of several aspects or reality Musk ignores. So you can just assume that any sort of timeline he might suggest is going to be at best half what the real timeline will work out to.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think the likelihood that the pods will work out for Chicago is similar to the likelihood the skate Musk intended for this thing will ever make an appearance.

  • Roy999

    This article was a little unfair to mask. He has shown that he is a genius and getting difficult tactical projects done. From almost nothing he developed what was the leading electric car. He has been very successful in developing spacecraft. It is amazing that he was able to develop a rock at the Woodland and be used again.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “He has shown that he [has] a genius [for] getting difficult tactical projects done.” Sure, but digging a 12′ tunnel for 6,000 feet and driving a car through it is not an example of that genius.

  • Scott Krajenta

    What Musk should be doing, and isn’t (or is not showing us), is modeling the full system on a computer. Not 3d renderings, but logistics. Showing all the potential customers over time accessing the system from various points along the route, automatically combining various sleds into “trains” as they move through the tunnel, and end point stations with a realistic peak travel time load. Until I see a realistic version of that along with actual functional prototypes, this is a non-starter.

  • “New technology takes time”.

    A) This isn’t new technology.
    B) Other things also take time…he hasn’t solved any of those things.

  • neroden

    If he wanted a smooth ride, he would have put it on conical steel wheels, and then put those steel wheels on steel tracks. And formed the steel wheels into sets of four in “bogies”, and mounted the vehicle suspension on top of that.

    That is, a train.

    The problem of making the ride smooth at high speeds is solved. By making trains. Musk seems utterly unable to understand this.

  • Neil.C

    Its just frustrating that one of the people who fell for Musk’s hype machine was Rahm Emanuel and now we are stuck with an increadibly wasteful project whose resources should be going into improving normal CTA service.

    If they insist on an express train beef up / improve NCS service.

  • ben

    You try it and tell me how it goes.

  • Austin Busch

    “since parking lifts are equipment they can be depreciated over 7 years
    instead of the 29 years for a physical building, helping to improve the
    after tax returns in the early years of the project.”

    Yeesh.

  • snrvlakk

    Guys, it cost us like $2 billion per mile to put in Phase 1 of New York’s Second Ave Subway. Yes, Musk’s tunnel is just 12 feet in diameter, and entirely lacking in a bunch of facilities which a functioning mass transportation system will have to have. (God, the escalators alone!!!) Nonetheless, if the guy could build a mile of tunnel under LA or Chicago for $10 million, attention must be paid. I found this article WAY too arch and dismissive. If this guy can stick his tunnel-boring-machine in the ground and drive it forward for less than $20 million a mile –or, Hell, <$50 million– it may–MAY– offer a solution to a major urban challenge. If it's fake, if it's a con, then we can dismiss it, but let's find out first, eh?

  • snrvlakk

    Paris’s Metro runs on rubber wheels. A lot less steel dust, btw.

  • jcwconsult

    Projects like this should be 100% funded by the vendor, including any costs needed due to interference with or modifications to existing public infrastructures. The fares to use the service should be entirely paid by the users with no public subsidies. The profit or loss risks are entirely for the vendor.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Finally, we agree on something!

  • jcwconsult

    I have no problem with private for-profit projects. Private-Public-Partnerships too often end up with the public subsidizing huge losses when promised profits or break-even financial results turn out to be myths.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Frank Kotter

    There has GOT to be a sewage or water tunnel of this dimension built in a similar way over the past ten years in the U.S.. It would be interesting to discover what their CPM was.

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