What if we can take Elon Musk’s science fiction high-speed underground vision one step further, and make it work for everyone?

Have you heard about Elon Musk’s idea for an underground system of tunnels that would move cars at superhigh speeds?

Of course you have.

The idea generated a wave of hype for Musk’s brand, but what is this “underground car” concept, really?

Silicon Valley often cannibalizes and reinvents existing services, usually involving an app, in order to turn a profit. In this case, Elon Musk has set his eyes on “disrupting” public transportation using his tech-celebrity cult guru status and the Tesla brand.

His “underground car” concept is a subway for private transportation, combined with the idea of a bus stop where cars arrive to be transported underground (a “car stop”).

Do you notice the weird part of that idea, though?

Yes. The exact reason for a subway is that many people don’t have access to cars. Subways and buses exist for everyone to use, which benefits all of society at an affordable price.

Elon Musk wants to sell more cars. He also probably wouldn’t mind owning an entire private subway system. Beyond hyping his brand now, it makes good future business sense. Public transportation is also “suboptimal” to say the least, so maybe Musk could “disrupt” it and do it better.

What if there could be a public option that works for everyone, and doesn’t require digging a whole new subway just for cars?

Think about it: there are already bus stops in many urban areas around the world. There are also subways in many major cities from São Paulo to Seoul. What if we could create a compelling vision of a future where the two — bus and subway — came together?

On a busy rush hour city street, a bus-sized pod sits at the curb. The pod, however, has no tires (or maybe it does) and sits atop a platform. At scheduled intervals, the platform descends into a city subway tunnel, and is propelled inside a vacuum-sealed tube (or a regular subway track) to the next stop. Behind and ahead of the pod, a regular subway train also runs its route, along with other transport pods.

When the pod reaches the next pod-stop, it slides into the rectangular lift-space and is elevated to the curb, streetside, unloading passengers and making itself available to a new group of riders.

In this idea, you leverage existing subway tunnels to create a public transportation subsystem that’s a hybrid of bus and subway. It can

  • reduce traffic congestion and pollution
  • be mostly automated to fit into subway schedules, and
  • benefits everyone rather than only people who have private cars.

Revenue generated by this system can be used to improve other aspects of public infrastructure — bridges, roads, schools, a functional universal healthcare system, or even funding basic income for when AI and automation overtakes most human jobs.

This idea could change the world. And we — the science fiction writers, artists, tinkerers, hackers and future-fascinated engineers — could be the ones to build the vision so that society can imagine it as real and demand that it be created.

Learn More

1. The Boring Company. (28 Apr 2017). Tunnels. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5V_VzRrSBI.

2. Etherington, Darrell. (28 Apr 2017). Watch how Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels will move cars faster. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/28/watch-how-elon-musks-boring-company-tunnels-will-move-cars-faster/.

3. Oremus, Will. (2017 June 19). Lyft Isn’t Reinventing City Buses. It’s Undermining Them. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/06/19/no_lyft_didn_t_accidentally_reinvent_the_city_bus.html.

4. Friedman, Ann. (26 June 2017). Lyft Shuttle: A bus, but without all those pesky poor people. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-lyft-shuttle-bus-perspec-20170626-story.html.

5. Pereira, Alyssa. (19 June 2017). Critics call out Lyft for reinventing the bus with its new ‘Shuttle’ feature. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/technology/article/Critics-call-out-Lyft-for-reinventing-the-bus-11230357.php.

6. Drum, Kevin. (17 Jul 2017). Mass Unemployment Will Start Around 2025. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/07/mass-unemployment-will-start-around-2025/.