How will the next big thing in technological innovation impact mobility infrastructure?
A serial entrepreneur, Elon Musk is the founder of PayPal, SPACEX and Tesla. In his opinion, it’s his colossal ambitions that give him a reason to get out of bed every day. In conversation with Chris Anderson on the TED stage (link below), he talks about his most recent ideas that could revolutionize the way mobility infrastructure in our cities is built.
As per a report published by the global traffic research firm INRIX in February this year, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the world. With main highways and roads choked with traffic for half of the day, there is literally no more space to expand infrastructure. Can an underground transportation network be the next solution to solving traffic congestion in cities? Given the current market trends and decrease in manufacturing costs, public transport will never be able to beat the price point of owning an individual car. Technology to excavate and re-enforce tunnels has been developed tremendously. A tunnel being built a few hundred meters below the ground wouldn’t disturb anything on the sub-surface. Moreover, by digging narrower tunnels that don’t exceed more than two lanes, the cost of building underground tunnels can be significantly reduced to about an eighth of the current cost. Combine that with the capacity of a hyperloop and you will find yourself moving large distances in just minutes! For instance a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco (approximately 560 km) would take just 35 minutes as compared to the current travel time of 6 hours.
TESLA still takes the front seat among all of Musk’s’ initiations and has been a front runner in electrifying cars and developing autonomous vehicles. Using only cameras and a GPS, TESLA is developing cars to be on auto-pilot mode. In fact cities are beginning to accept the vision of a future with driverless cars and are taking first steps to adapting infrastructure to accommodate these vehicles in the future. Autonomous vehicles require lesser space to function which is a boon for dense and crowded cities. This ‘extra space’ in the future can potentially be used to deal with events related to the changing climate such as flooding, or expansion of essential land uses along highways, or to improve the overall quality of space for people living next to major infrastructure. This would have probably not been a reality had the idea of electric and autonomous vehicles not been propelled by major car companies such as TESLA.
With the number of cars increasing, and with shared autonomy, there will be more and more cars on the roads. An underground network is a far-fetched idea to solve it and will once again shape our cities a few decades from now. But should we really encourage a future where we don’t feel guilty about energy? Our irresponsible consumption habits have got us to where we are and such radical solutions seem like the only way out. However, this idea questions the basis of sustainable development. The Brundtland report of 1987 defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Adding more networks, on the surface or below it encourages more cars thus re-enforcing the existing consumption patterns. This is in contrast to making public transport cheaper, building walkable cities and switching to non-carbon based fuels for transportation. The basis of such radical ideas comes from Elon Musks’ thinking of the future of humankind. He argues that the pace of current development will lead to either of two scenarios – one where human beings will be wiped out and the second where we will occupy multiple planets. Given the short time span of human evolution and progress of intellectual and technological development, we have limited time to make a meaningful impact through our actions. This is what motivated him to accelerate the advent of sustainable development and develop TESLA, to advance electrifying vehicles and adapt it to the current market forces to make it widespread.
Technology has always played a major role within city planning especially when it comes to mobility. Although the below ground mobility network proposed by Musk addresses the issues related to implementation and cost, issues concerning safety and societal acceptance pose the biggest challenge. In case of a natural calamity such as an earthquake, an evacuation plan a hundred meters below the ground would pose quite a complex challenge. Additionally, history has proven that society usually takes a while to accept new technology. For example, when the high speed trains were first introduced in the 19th century, people complained of illnesses arising from the light, wind speeds and fast image transitions. The discomfort and mysterious symptoms disappeared over time and resurfaced every time technology enabled us to travel faster. 
So while such an infrastructure is not explicitly a sustainable solution, a radical and impatient approach toward sustainable development is needed. The ‘green economy’ or ‘green capitalism’ approach is still failing to respond to economic growth, environmental protection and social welfare because it overlooks the notion of unbridled consumerism. When will we challenge the fundamental definition of ‘progress’ that is based on growth-oriented development and neoliberalism? Radical ideas that prioritize social welfare and environmental protection are unlikely to become prevalent and widespread in the current scenario. But this is not impossible. Inevitably, as interrelated crises increase people will start looking for meaningful alternatives. As planners and designers, we should question the impact of our choices and make deliberate and well informed decisions. This is relevant now more than any other time since technology is developing at a rapid pace and is influencing cities faster than planners can ever accommodate for it. Within an ethical framework that is trying to solve ‘real’ problems, design decisions should be able to provoke a reaction. Solutions that are mindful of societal wellbeing and resource conservation are not a choice anymore. It is a necessity that we must responsibly respond to.
 Sustainable development is failing, but there are alternatives to capitalism, 2015, Ashish Kothari, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta, The Guardian
 The Emotional Landscape, 2014, Dirk Sijmonds and Machiel van Dorst, nai101 publishers
 High speed transportation in a reduced pressure tube