Elon Musk’s Las Vegas Loop: Genius Engineering or Overhyped Disaster?

  • Musk won the $48.7m project to build a tunnel beneath Las Vegas in 2019
  • Rather than speedy autonomous pods, it currently utilizes slow-moving Teslas
  • A Bloomberg report highlighted safety issues, including workers in toxic mud
  • However, it is meeting the remit in terms of the numbers it is transporting
The Boring Company and Vegas Loop
Elon Musk and his The Boring Company are building a tunnel beneath Las Vegas, and the project certainly has its sceptics. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Extending the loop

When controversial billionaire Elon Musk won a $48.7m project to build a tunnel beneath Las Vegas in May 2019, many were sceptical. Through his Boring Company (hilarious name we know), he intended to create a loop underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) through which visitors could be transported across campus.

68 miles of tunnel network, dipping into the downtown region of the city and beyond

Musk built that 1.7-mile tunnel in approximately one year. Plans for the tunnel have since expanded from three stops to five and then 23. In July 2023, the plan took on a whole new dimension when local officials approved Musk to build 68 miles of tunnel network, dipping into the downtown region of the city and beyond.

This week, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) has just approved a further expansion of Musk’s ambitious system. With the city now clearly committed to the Las Vegas Loop, the question remains: is Musk’s ambitious system a stroke of genius or an overhyped disaster?

Plan vs reality

When Musk announced his plans, it seemed like a dream come true for Las Vegas’s traffic issues. The business mogul said that underground autonomous vehicles would move at speeds of up to 240km/h on the network, taking people between stations in just one minute. His goal was to move a staggering 4,000 people per hour.

However, when members of the media were invited to try out the tunnel in 2021, they tore into Musk, deeming it a “vanity project.” Much of this criticism centered on Musk not delivering on his promises for the project. Many of the specifications had changed since the details of the plan surfaced in 2019.

the reality seems a far cry from the initial plan

Rather than pods, the network utilizes standard cars – Teslas in fact. They require a driver and each one travels at a much more modest 55km/h in single file through the 12-foot wide passage. There is every possibility that Musk will eventually upgrade the system, but for now the reality seems a far cry from the initial plan and critics are doubtful that it will change.

That said, the reality has met the plan in some aspects. For instance, The Boring Company claims that the network has transported 4,500 people per hour during its peak. It has transported 1.5 million people since its launch in 2021. It also means that journeys that would have taken up to 45 minutes now supposedly take two.

Safety issues

An investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek recently revealed further issues with Musk’s project, this time related to the safety of workers.

The report suggested that tunnel workers had to wade through toxic mud containing a variety of chemicals in addition to silt, sand, and water.

Many workers also supposedly reported serious incidents involving accelerants. These are used to help seal the tunnel’s concrete supports but they can also cause serious skin burns. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, some workers were left with permanent scarring from these types of injuries while working on the Vegas Loop.

Some employees even question the safety of the tunnel for those using it

One intern supposedly almost lost his life last summer while working on the project. Concrete blocks almost crushed him as they fell. The OSHA issued fines of $112,504 to Musk’s company after discovering eight violations of health and safety. Some employees even question the safety of the tunnel for those using it, with one former worker telling Bloomberg that they would “never, ever drive in one of those tunnels.”

In light of the issues, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman has little faith in Musk completing the work. Speaking with Bloomberg, she said she believes the company will eventually abandon the “impractical” project.

The positives

Of course, its not all doom and gloom.

The project has had some positive media attention too. Some claim that critics are measuring the success of the tunnel wrong and are hopeful that the tunnel will eventually feature the self-driving pods once promised. Steve Hill, President of the LVCVA, stands by the project, describing it as “a showpiece” for now, that will become “an attraction for Vegas.”

As Hill suggests, it’s true that the tunnel meets the special feel of Las Vegas. The city has always done things a little differently, and a futuristic underground tunnel system certainly works with this theme. Along with the Las Vegas Sphere, the Bellagio Fountains, and the Mirage Volcano, Musk’s new tunnel may become an attraction in itself.

work that would have previously taken years can now take weeks

Despite Goodman’s pessimism, Musk also does have the tools at his disposal to get the job done. In typical Musk fashion, he invented the tools himself. Prufrock is a tunnel-building machine that launches from the surface, mines underground, and re-emerges upon completion. It means work that would have previously taken years can now take weeks, drilling at a speed of one mile per week.

The jury is out

While Musk’s project certainly has its sceptics, the jury is still out as to whether the Vegas Loop will eventually become a true success.

In terms of the amount of passengers it is transporting per day, it could be argued that the Vegas Loop is already meeting its requirements. At 32,000 passengers per day, the number of people it transports is almost double the average transported by global light rail lines over their entire length. As the Loop adds more stations it is evident that this number will only increase.

However, it seems that to become a true success Musk will have to eventually meet his initial plans. The Boring Company has not yet produced the automated pod that it promised, but that could be the final piece of the puzzle that turns the project from flop to winner – from a standard tunnel into a true Las Vegas attraction.

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