Technology First Look

Why Elon Musk wants to add 'boring' traffic tunnels to his portfolio

In a series of tweets, Tesla CEO announces a plan to start a 'boring company' that will dig tunnels to assuage traffic congestion issues.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk smiles as he attends a forum on startups in Hong Kong, China, Jan. 26. Mr. Musk teased a new idea on Twitter on Saturday to build a tunnel boring machine to alleviate traffic.
Bobby Yip/Reuters/File | Caption

After being stuck in traffic, consummate entrepreneur/tech visionary Elon Musk tweeted out his latest inspiration: tunnels to help clear up roadway congestion.

Mr. Musk is no stranger to massive, transportation-related developments. He's already launched ambitious ventures aimed at pioneering space travel, colonizing Mars, revolutionizing electric cars, and designing a new high-speed rail system that would travel at upward of 700 miles per hour. But this one – if he, in fact, decides to make good on his tweeted proclamations – would be decidedly more down-to-Earth.

His message — which read in a sequence of four tweets, began with, “traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…” and ended with the statement, “I am actually going to do this.” In between he took the time to include a humorous tagline for the proposed new company, “Boring, it’s what we do.”

Further adding to the overarching question about the seriousness of such a claim, the statements were accompanied by a change in his Twitter bio to include “Tunnels (yes, tunnels)" to his preexisting list of priorities which already contained, Tesla, SpaceX, and OpenAI.

Musk, who began his entrepreneurial career with online software and hit it big with the creation of the internet financial services company Paypal, transitioned into the transportation industry with his seemingly science fiction-inspired commercial space travel concept SpaceX. Simultaneously, he threw himself into the development of electric vehicles via Tesla Motors. 

By 2013 he announced a futuristic idea for a high-speed, 'hyperloop' transportation system involving reduced-pressure tubes and pressurized capsules which could theoretically make the trip from San Francisco to Las Angeles in 30 minutes. His new cryptic tweets have led to a bevy of speculation as to exactly which purpose Musk imagines his “boring” venture being applied toward.

A writer for The Guardian speculated that Musk could be announcing a move to begin manufacturing machines which would be capable of drilling the initial Hyperloop routes, or he could be envisioning a motorway designed specifically for electric and autonomous vehicles.

It's not surprising that Musk might focus on this problem. Los Angeles and San Francisco rank No. 1 and No. 2 as the worst cities in the US for traffic congestion, according to an annual survey by TomTom, a navigation systems company. The SpaceX headquarters is in Hawthorne, Calif., near the Los Angeles airport, and a Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., near San Francisco. 

Since Musk’s ambiguous tweets about tunnel building followed a meeting between 13 Silicon Valley executives and President-elect Donald Trump this past week, as well as taking on an advisory position with Mr. Trump, further speculation involves the president-elect’s stated intention to invest as much as $1 trillion on infrastructure improvements.

It is possible that Trump’s plan, which would dramatically boost road and bridge construction, could now potentially also include an increase in spending on some sort of tunnel development in accordance with Musk’s latest traffic-busting inspiration.

Whatever that may be, Musk’s historic track-record of following-through on and bringing seemingly improbable ideas into fruition makes his unclear message worthy of attention. Or as The Guardian wrote, “If anyone can transform a seemingly absent-minded half-joke into a world-changing technology, it’s [Elon Musk].”