Thursday, December 20, 2018

Musk's tunnel vision

Elon Musk has just unveiled the Hyperloop, well with the air in the tunnels included. OK, differently, he has disrupted the public transportation in Los Angeles. Tons of media uncritically convey his hype.

Fine, in other words, he has previously bought a boring machine and learned how to turn it on. So why wouldn't he use it to create some hype? What the Californians got may be seen in this 7-minute CBS video. A car – it must be a Tesla – is dropped by an ugly vertical factory-like elevator for cars (30 seconds delay) to some thin tunnel where only one car fits, and is moved at 80 kilometers per hour through a thin tunnel, on an extra plate with wheel. The speed is high enough and the motion is bumpy enough for the passengers to feel unsafe and uncomfortable.

As discussed in wonderfully critical articles at Deadspin, Slate, and Jalopnik – see also Thunderf00t one month ago – the innovative ideas behind all of this are absolutely non-existent and if you compare Musk's vision to the existing solutions – such as roads, road tunnels, subways etc. – Musk's solution is strictly worse in virtually all respects.

You know, boring tunnels is no longer the most high-tech activity you can do although some tunnels are made in more advanced ways than in others. For a few years, I watched the construction of the Ejpovice Tunnel, what is now the longest railroad tunnel in Czechia. It starts one mile from my home and each of the two tunnels (Southern and Northern) is 4.1 kilometers long. This tunnel makes some sense because the trains from Pilsen to Prague used to take a detour. With the tunnel, the train trip from Prague to Pilsen or back is shortened by some 10-20 minutes, depending on the stage of the speed limits in and near the tunnel. For the first time, trains between Prague and Pilsen may be faster than cars (The Western Express makes it in 79 minutes between the centers of the two cities). And that's an improvement worth those $250 million, I finally decided.

Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, without much science-fiction hype, the tunnel was opened. First, a month ago, they opened one of the two tunnels, and at the limited 50 kilometers per hour low speed due to security reasons, see the video of going from Pilsen through the tunnel. Both tunnels are already operating now at normal speeds (above 100 kilometers per hour) for trains. And within a year or two, 200 kilometers per hour (the highest speed at Czech railroads) will be allowed there (and nowhere else).

In Prague, we also have the Prague subway. Over the years, my appreciation for that system has increased because I think it's vastly more luxurious than what I saw in Boston, New York, but also most other large Western cities.

Musk has created the tunnel for $10 million. It's relatively cheap because it's the tunnel of the minimum thickness for one car that contains virtually no infrastructure (such as emergency exits). It seems clear to me that at least some extra additions would be necessary to make it usable outside the experimental regime so the price for the tunnel would be $20 million.

What do you get for such a price? The most optimistic estimates talk about the ability to transfer 16,000 people an hour. I think it's unrealistic and a more realistic limit would be 1,000 people per hour. The cars need to wait in a line before the elevator, it takes 30 seconds to go up and down, people are sometimes unruly so you just can't assume the best-case scenario for everything. Instead of the maximum 5-7 people in a Tesla, there would be 2 people in average inside the car. Slate calls the system a Rube Goldberg machine to transport people: underground, tracks, wheel attachments, car elevators.

Prague (1.2 million people) is a much smaller city than L.A. but its subway delivers 1.6 million rides in average. Scale everything by a factor of three. You need some 5 million rides a day for a system to be comparably important for L.A. as Prague Subway is important for Prague. Because one of those tunnels will transfer some 50,000 people a day, a compromise from the last paragraph, you need 100 tunnels like that for the system to matter.

This is how I understand the only innovative vision in this whole Musk's talk. He just wants to build lots of thin tunnels under L.A. Would it make sense? Would you learn how to use these 100 line segments from "A to B"? Maybe I am wrong but I can marginally imagine that such a system of many minimal tunnels for cars could play a role in such a city.

But what sane people – e.g. Jalopnik, Deadspin, Thunderf00t – are doing and Musk and his fans are never doing is to compare the proposed solution with the more well-known alternatives. We may compare the delay, comfort, reliability, risks (Tesla cars like to spontaneously catch fire thrice) etc. between Musk's tunnels and ordinary road tunnels or ordinary subway. I guess that the ordinary things ultimately emerge as winners.

The tunnel we were shown starts with an elevator on your garden. Would it be privately owned? Well, it could be if the owner could afford to throw away $10 million for something that is comparably useful to a bunch of monthly tickets for the public transportation. ;-) OK, such a garden elevator could be shared with 100 other people. How would it work? Would there be employees at every tunnel? Would they be more effective than those in the road tunnels and subways?

Musk fans never ask such questions. I think that they feel offended when someone asks any important question. You're supposed to worship the great visionary. Well, in this case, we were clearly not shown any visionary. There doesn't seem to be anything innovative yet useful in anything he has presented. He has just hyped one of the worst tunnels that was ever built and he had to build it because he had bought a boring machine and didn't know what to do with it. His cult makes him believe that whatever he touches turns into gold because he has eaten King Solomon's excrements (do you use this idiom in English?) – so he just touched tunnels. ;-)

I think that we're shown that even if he has failed, at least, he has independently invented a subway. ;-) Sorry, I don't buy it. There is absolutely nothing independent about it. He may pretend that he invented some of those things independently – but that's after he has seen normal subways, guided buses, and all the other relevant inventions. Everyone can "independently invent" things in this sense.

Those fans often respond to the critics: But you haven't done anything for the transportation in L.A. at all, you haven't even built a damn bad tunnel. Right, almost none of the critics have. But they have also not wasted millions or billions of dollars for things that seem to be an obvious waste of money. A question is whether it's better to do nothing or to waste millions or billions of dollars. I think it's better to do nothing! Or to contribute a nontrivial careful analysis or comparison of the options.

The people with the pro-Musk mindset feel that "they need to spend those millions or billions" in some way, it is such a hard task, and it's great when they invent a way to do so. I am sorry but the money isn't some garbage you need to get rid of. All people easily figure out ways how to waste money. The value equivalent to the money is being produced by people's hard work – sometimes rather unpleasant work. It shouldn't be thrown into projects that are silly. Investors have the right to throw their money into something. But fans of stuff like that don't really have the moral right to spend the taxpayer money for such things – especially if the outcome is just some bizarrely ineffective transportation system for a few very rich people.

American cities should primarily build proper subways they don't need to be ashamed of, at least like those in Prague or better. Right now, American subways are places occupied by low classes where you're often afraid to go, where you must get used to terrible noise and dirt and smell and other things. Well, it doesn't have to be like that. If you do it a little bit better, with a cleaner goal, and enforce some rules, you can build subway systems that all people naturally like when they try it. You can build subways where fancy people will happily pay $10 for the transfer because it will be better than yellow cabs.

It's a big secret but lots of rich people are spending huge amounts of money for something that is ultimately worse, less well tasting etc. than rather ordinary things and services used by the rather ordinary people. I am not talking just about Tesla cars on bizarre overpriced dirt roads in minimalistic bumpy tunnels that are marketed as the future of transportation. I am talking about overpriced organic food, overpriced apartments in overpriced places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts. I've tried some of those things and they just suck relatively to less hyped things.

P.S.: Musk or fans say that he found a really cheap way to dig tunnels. WTF? This is so simple that you must see that it's nonsense. He bought the same boring machine as others and was using it according to the guide just like others. Whatever is cheaper had to be due to hidden expenses, volunteers, masked spending, and missing infrastructure and security that is otherwise a part of the tunnels. What's the big deal that you may make things cheaper by reducing them to the bare skeletons?

The cost was $10 million per 1.15 miles. It's said by analysts that it didn't include some human work, surely not research. The Ejpovice railroad tunnel is a pair (two directions!) of 4.1 km thick tunnels – the total length is 8.2 km – and they're thicker tunnels. The limiting price was CZK 6.8 billion = $300 million, including the land they had to buy on the surface, and they probably stayed strictly below this upper limiting price. That's at most $35 million for a kilometer or $60 for a mile of a thick tunnel that has everything you need, periodic ventilation corridors, and other things. Of course you could invent a lower number if you only isolated some of the expenses.

Now, the diameter of the (round) Ejpovice tunnel is 5.3 meters inside and 6 meters including the walls, Musk's tunnel is just some 14 feet, so the area is about 2 times smaller.

Where is the miraculous trick or idea that Musk has allegedly contributed to make the digging cheaper? I think it's rather clear that there is none. I suspect that the same would be true for the SpaceX "improvements" if we understood the necessary work as (relatively) well as we understand the digging of tunnels.

Also, his digging wasn't "faster". Each of the two Ejpovice 4.15 km tunnels took about year to be bored – they were drilled with the same gadget Viktoria which returned to the original place after the first tubus. Musk needed 18 months for a thinner and almost 3 times shorter tunnel.

I couldn't resist to include this photograph because I've spent 6 years at Harvard. A bus going through a tunnel under Harvard Square, amazing. When did this Harvard Bus Tunnel, the super science-fiction futuristic sibling of Musk's tunnel open? Well, it opened in 1912, damn 106 years ago.

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