Elon Musk’s Boring Company unveiled its latest transportation experiment in Los Angeles last night. The Loop, not to be confused with the Hyperloop, was supposed to be a high-speed urban transportation system of the future. And the first reviews are in, but they’re pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Back when the concept was first announced, Musk promised that the Loop would utilise fully autonomous 16-passenger vehicles gliding along at speeds of 241km per hour. But the system that was demonstrated last night featured just regular Tesla cars driven manually on an underground one-mile track. And at an underwhelming speed of just 35-50 miles per hour.
The first concept videos for the tunnel system were impressive and got people really excited about what Musk was building in Hawthorne, California near the SpaceX headquarters. And Musk bent over backwards last night to explain that the test tunnel still had kinks to work out. But the reviews will disappoint even the most diehard Musk supporters.
Laura J. Nelson at the Los Angeles Times:
The trip through the tunnel took about two minutes, illuminated by the car’s headlights and a strip of blue neon lights tacked to the ceiling. The Model X rolled on two moulded concrete shelves along the wall, which were so uneven in places that it felt like riding on a dirt road.
“We kind of ran out of time,” Musk said, attributing the rough ride to problems with a paving machine. “The bumpiness will not be there down the road. It will be as smooth as glass. This is just a prototype. That’s why it’s just a little rough around the edges.”
Matt McFarland at CNN:
Red lights atop the tunnel suddenly turned green. The Model X jolted forward and we were off. The trip was bumpy at times as we jostled against the tunnel. The narrow space made the low speeds — we travelled mostly at 56km/h — feel faster. It felt like an amusement park ride. After about two minutes, the car emerged from the tunnel into a large pit in the SpaceX parking lot.
Ivan Penn at the New York Times:
Angie Reyes English, a former member of Hawthorne’s city council, was among the first visitors to go through the tunnel. She said she had voted for the project and was glad to see the result.
“It’s a little bumpy,” Ms. English said. “I believe it’s going to be improved. It’s a test tunnel. I think it was cleverly done.”
Amanda Lee Myers at the Associated Press:
Guests boarded Musk’s Tesla Model S and rode along Los Angeles-area surface streets about a mile away to what’s known as O’Leary Station. The station, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighbourhood — “basically in someone’s backyard,” Musk says — consists of a wall-less elevator that slowly took the car down a wide shaft, roughly 30 feet (9 meters) below the surface.
The sky slowly fell away and the surprisingly narrow tunnel emerged.
“We’re clear,” said the driver, who sped up and zipped into the tunnel when a red track light turned green, making the tube look like something from space or a dance club.
The car jostled significantly during the ride, which was bumpy enough to give one reporter motion sickness while another yelled, “Woo!”
Musk was reportedly making excuses throughout the night about why his system looked nothing like what he promised. And his concept now relies on every person having their own car.
“It’s much more like an underground highway than it is a subway,” Musk said, according to the Associated Press.
Not only that, the cars are simply retrofitted with $US300 ($417) guides to keep them on the track, not unlike the system you might see at theme park rides in Disneyland during the 1950s.
Where does all of this leave Elon Musk’s vision of futuristic transportation? Only time will tell. But the most radical difference between the proposal and the real thing so far isn’t just the speed, it’s the decision to use regular cars instead of 16-passenger vehicles.
Again, this is what was promised:
And this is what was delivered:
Hopefully Musk and his engineers will be able to make the ride feel less like a dirt road sometime in the future, especially if they want to build this concept in Chicago, as they promised in a high-profile press conference with the mayor back in June.
But even if they make the ride more pleasant, where does that leave this transportation concept more broadly? There are plenty of underground highways in America. But they haven’t offered a very futuristic alternative. They’ve only delivered more single-family cars—which appears to be exactly what Elon Musk is putting in the pipeline.
Elon Musk has done some very impressive things with SpaceX and Tesla. But his futuristic Loop transportation system leaves a lot to be desired. Namely, the futuristic part.
Update, 9:00am: A number of people have pointed to The Verge as an example of a positive review, but I don’t think those people have read The Verge’s story. It’s easy to see why readers might be confused. Here’s the headline, with the misleading quote, “This is better than Disneyland.”
But if you actually read the story, it’s clear that not only was the Verge reporter just quoting someone else, they actually thought that saying it was “better than Disneyland” would be an insult to Disneyland (emphasis mine):
“This is better than Disneyland,” another reporter says excitedly as we begin to pick up speed. (I have not been to Disneyland, but this seems like a scathing indictment.) Our top speed is 64km per hour, though as we get to the end of the tunnel we slow to 25; the entire trip through the 2km tunnel takes two minutes and change.
The ride is bumpy — there were some “issues with the paving machine not paving smoothly,” Elon Musk, the founder and principal investor, says later at a press conference. “In the future, you can be sure it will be absolutely smooth.”
It does seem strange, though, that we’re taking this ride in a Model X — because until this evening, there were going to be “autonomous electric skates” that zip passengers around at 120 to 241km per hour. These skates were supposed to carry eight to 16 people in a pod or a single car. Unlike with a more conventional subway, these skates don’t stop between where a person gets on and where they might get off; every skate runs express to one’s final destination.
Anyway, the skates have been canceled. “The car is the skate,” Musk says.
So make of that what you will.
Update, 10:45am: A few other publications have now published their firsthand accounts, and everyone seems to be in agreement that it’s a rocky start.
Tim Higgins at the Wall Street Journal called it a “bumpy experience” with plenty of dust:
The driver edged into the tunnel where lateral wheels affixed to the SUV’s front wheels bumped against the tunnel’s walls. He then gunned the accelerator to quickly reach over 64km an hour. The SUV’s lateral wheels seemed to jerk between the tunnel walls, creating a bumpy experience while the vehicle quietly whirred through the path. Dust that kicked up from a previous ride hung in the air.
The ride ended about three minutes later.
And Smith Henderson at Popular Mechanics gave it perhaps the most positive review yet, though it does sound like he’s trying to convince himself that it was cool more than anything else:
Turns out, the ride in Musk’s new tunnel is actually pretty damn cool. A group of us climb into a Tesla X, buckle up, and our driver rolls us into the surprisingly narrow tunnel. We won’t go more than 64km/h, but as the overhead line of lights changes from red to green, and we pick up speed…it becomes obvious that going 241km/h will be, um, awesome. Even at this clip, even with the bumps, the tight tunnel is mesmerising, almost calming. It feels natural to be zipping in this discrete pod.
In a few minutes, we arrive at our destination, and pull onto an elevator. We rise up some 15.24m toward the California sky, a Boring Company employee watching us come up like a scuba instructor. There’s a palm tree. A private plane cuts through the sky. We are back on the surface where the Earth is disgorging Teslas.
Popular Mechanics is great, but sometimes it feels like they’re trying way too hard to be optimistic in the face of overwhelming disappointment. Especially when it comes to Elon Musk.