Thursday, January 3, 2019

Remember when we compared the Boring Co. demo to a 50s era amusement park ride? Turns out we were off by a bit

One of my favorite recent takes on the Boring company debut was this NBC piece by Dennis Romero discussing the parallels between the demonstration and turn-of-the-century roller coasters. Probably my favorite part was the following bit of diplomacy edging into sarcasm.

"Musk's brainchild appears to have had a last-minute evolution from using futuristic "skates" to carry 16 passengers to using Model X SUVs (priced at $84,000 and higher) from his automaker, Tesla. Those can carry as many as seven people."

It is the word "evolution" that really tips it over, particularly when preceded by "last minute." As mentioned before, the system demonstrated for the press (and a truly stunning collection of suckers from Chicago) was obviously thrown together so quickly they didn't even have time to work out the retractable wheels, while the promised cutting-edge automated system was replaced with what was literally late 19th century technology.

The now undeniable conclusion which most journalists are conveying with varying degrees of bluntness is that, after two years of unrelenting hype often conveyed by completely credulous coverage, Elon Musk has come up with absolutely nothing. No advances. No new technology. Nothing.

Perhaps he was hoping to bluff his way through with a combination of charm and mystique and it is entirely possible that might've worked a year or two ago, but the fa├žade has started to crack since then and for most reporters, it has gotten far more difficult to buy into the myth.

"It seems like they've built essentially a side-friction roller coaster, minus the coasting part," said Nick Weisenberger, an automotive engineer who co-manages Coaster101, a roller coaster news and appreciation site. "That's old-school."

Indeed, Leap-the-Dips reaches a top operating speed of only 10 mph; there's nothing keeping it from bouncing out of its tracks at higher speeds. Musk has promised his Loop would take electric Tesla vehicles at speeds of up to 150 mph, a rate reached only in the last decade of roller coaster development by Ferrari's Formula Rossa ride in Abu Dhabi.

That attraction features side-friction wheels, but it also uses up-stop wheels and regular track wheels, a fairly standard configuration today. The side-friction wheels help the ride maintain speed and lateral stability, experts say, but the up-stop wheels keep it from flying off the track at such high speeds.

"You don’t see side-friction roller coasters built anymore," Weisenberger said. "You're not really securing the vehicle to the track."

A spokesman for the Boring Company did not want to comment using his name.

Pete Trabucco, author of "America's Top Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks," said old side-friction rides emphasize lateral motion as part of the experience. But, he said, this wouldn't be ideal for transportation.

"Side-friction makes it feel like you’re actually going to fall off the track," he said. "The side motion stuff actually gets people sick."

Musk's brainchild appears to have had a last-minute evolution from using futuristic "skates" to carry 16 passengers to using Model X SUVs (priced at $84,000 and higher) from his automaker, Tesla. Those can carry as many as seven people.

"The capacity on the Loop seems like it would be very low compared to a large transit solution," said mechanical engineer and roller coaster aficionado Eric Wooley.

Musk indicated the tunnel system he wants to build under Los Angeles would accommodate autonomous electric cars from various makers. And he hopes to take 4,000 passengers an hour up and down the city's congested Westside.

The billionaire, who has touted his tunnel development for nearly two years as a solution to L.A.'s "soul-crushing" traffic, said the demonstration in Hawthorne, California, was just a loose test of technology that's rapidly evolving. And, to be fair, whatever his Loop is, it's not a roller coaster.

Yet the small diameter of the test tunnel could limit the kinds of vehicles that would fit. Musk said a 14-foot diameter, half that of a standard subway tunnel, allows for faster construction. But it might take many of them to move thousands of people at one time.

"They could do something where the track, the rails, were wide enough for different cars," Wooley said. "But the tunnel looks narrow. Obviously, you couldn’t fit a much wider or taller vehicle in there."
Roller coasters, trains and subways also use lower friction wheels made of metals or urethane, which produce higher speeds. Concrete rails, which Boring appeared to use, would also increase resistance.

Musk suggested that the side-friction wheels used on the test car could be purchased for $300, but vehicles using a 150 mph surface would likely also need speed-rated performance tires that often cost 50 percent more than regular all-season rubber.

"From the energy and efficiency side of looking at it," Wooley said, "I’m not sure I’d choose that over building a subway."

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