For the past decade or so, we have seen Elon Musk’s future of transportation clearly articulated — as most visionary proposals are — through a series of Twitter replies. Autonomous electric vehicles (the ones he makes, of course) will run very quickly through tunnels (the ones he makes, of course), navigating beneath all the other cars to get people to their destinations fast. Well, what if I told you that Musk’s future of transportation is not ten or 20 or 50 years away but already here! Right at this very moment, anyone can see how well it works, and all you have to do is get to Las Vegas, home of the annual techstravaganza that is the Consumer Electronics Show.
In 2019, the Las Vegas Convention Center became the first paying customer of Musk’s tunnel-digging operation, the Boring Company. The city’s tourism agency paid him $50 million to build a pair of one-mile tunnels beneath the recently expanded convention halls, promising to turn a 20-minute walk into a one-minute ride. This week, a one-minute video showed the vehicle stuck in traffic for at least that long, as the driver — a human; more on that in a minute — merges into an underground parking garage, where dozens of people are getting into seemingly ordinary cars, all of them also about to get stuck in seemingly ordinary traffic, except they’re trapped inside what looks like the world’s longest MRI machine.
Right next to the tunnel, part of the convention center’s parking lot has been blocked off for an autonomous-vehicle demonstration to show how well various automakers’ pedestrian-detection systems work. A small figure meant to represent a child crossing the street is placed in front of the vehicles, which navigate toward the figure, detect something in the road using their onboard LIDAR systems, and stop. Except the Tesla vehicles, that is, which are not equipped with LIDAR and repeatedly run the kid over. This is a demonstration set up by a LIDAR company, of course, but the sentiment that automated cars should have multiple, redundant detection systems is widely shared by industry safety experts. It is not a sentiment shared by Musk (although the company is reportedly now testing the technology).
Remember that in this particular transportation system of the future, Musk was contractually obligated to deliver a specific daily ridership to the convention center: 4,000 people per hour for 13 hours per day during major trade shows. (The contract also has penalties for failure to meet these numbers: $300,000 per trade show for a maximum of $4.5 million.) Part of this math was calculated when the system was to use autonomous 12-passenger vans, which have never materialized, and then by having four passengers in each autonomous SUV, with one person sitting in the non-driving driver’s seat. I think we can all agree, after seeing what is going on above ground, that it’s a good thing these vehicles are not autonomously zinging through stations crowded with people walking to their rides (and kids aren’t allowed to ride in these tunnels anyway, which is probably … also good). But it’s plain to any observer that there are not 4,000 people moving through this tunnel per hour, and recent data showed it’s more like 1,300 people per hour — about the capacity of standard (and, often, autonomous) people-movers all over Vegas — meaning the Boring Company has massively shortchanged its client. Nevertheless, in October, Musk’s Boring Company won unanimous approval from Clark County to extend his tunnels beneath the Strip, with contracts to build stations at several hotels. The hotels are footing the bills for the next phase, so at least the city’s money won’t continue to be buried in this underground money pit. But it’s certainly going to be interesting to see, after watching this real-world demonstration, who actually buys into this future and who ends up getting taken for a ride.