Review of Elon Musk’s DC-to-Baltimore ‘Loop’ system reveals safety concerns



The Boring Company’s Loop transit system that aims to shuttle people in autonomous electric vehicles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. fails to fulfill several key national safety standards, a review of its proposal reveals.

The system appears to lack emergency exits, ignore the most recent engineering practices and suggests passenger escape ladders that one fire safety scientist predicts “the definition of insanity. ”

Details of the 35.3-mile system, the first segment in a high-speed community that Boring Company founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes will one day run all the way to New York, emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment.

Musk founded The Boring Company, or TBC, in 2016 after getting frustrated with Los Angeles’ infamous traffic congestion. The aim was to find an cost-effective and efficient means to dig on networks of tunnels for vehicles. That idea evolved into the Loop, a system that would transport people in modified Tesla vehicles.

A Tesla Model X in The Boring Company’s demonstration tunnel in California. Photo/The Boring Company

Musk showed his vision for what he has described as an “‘entirely new method of transportation “ during an event  last December that took media and guests via a 1.1-mile demonstration tunnel underneath 120th Street in the city of Hawthorne, Calif. near among Musk’s other businesses, SpaceX. 

Fire dangers and escape hatches

The Baltimore-to-Washington document specifies parallel tunnels operating beneath highways, within which modified Tesla vehicles would travel peacefully at up to 150 mph. Cars would depart as every 30 seconds, with a journey time of just 15 minutes in either direction. Later on, Musk even envisages converting the tunnels into a Hyperloop system outfitted with pods that could reach speeds of 600 mph.

If the Baltimore-to-DC Loop system is considered a road tunnel, it would be the longest in the world. It would only be surpassed by the epic Gotthard Base Tunnel running beneath the Swiss Alps.

But where the Gotthard Base Tunnel has escape passageways spaced about every 1,000 feet, Musk’s Loop will have up to 10,500 feet between emergency exits. That is more than four times the maximum distance allowed in standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for people rail and transit systems.

“Just because a vehicle doesn’t have gas doesn’t mean it’s no significant fire risk,” said Glenn Corbett, a professor of security, fire and emergency management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Lithium-ion batteries are possibly more dangerous, and are an issue for fire safety agencies and airlines for the previous 10 decades. ”

Modern electric vehicle batteries can suffer intense, runaway fires when ruined . There have been two recent incidents — one caught on video in China — of a parked Tesla spontaneously exploding. Tesla said this month that it had been updating its vehicles’ battery program for charging and thermal management. “Although fire incidents between Tesla vehicles are already extremely rare and our cars are 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gas car, we think the perfect number of episodes to anticipate is zero,” it wrote in a statement.

The Loop document claims that TBC will install a highly effective ventilation system as well as fire suppression, detection and safety measures. But the facilities for passengers to escape during an emergency, be it breakdown, fire, flood or terrorism, leave much to be desired, says Corbett: “You’ll have folks that range from 5 years old to 95. What they’re suggesting would not pass muster. ”

To begin with, some of the Loop’s emergency exits are too far apart. Should a fire break out at the worst possible place, passengers could face a walk resulting in the surface.

To comply with NFPA standards the Loop would need at least 74 exits for each of the tunnels between Baltimore and DC. TBC’s document says it only plans to develop “up to 70” in total.

If the Loop system were designated a road tunnel complying would be tougher. Stricter NFPA standards for truck and car tunnels mean that TBC would need to construct more than 180 exit shafts for each tunnel.

“Even this standard, that is 1,000 feet between exits, is weak,” Corbett said. “Smoke from a fire in an enclosed place has a high propensity make a whole lot of problems and to kill people. ”

The ‘definition of insanity’

Their difficulties might not be over, when passengers eventually reach the ventilation shafts. The tunnel floor is going to be between 44 and 104 feet below the surface.

“One or more means of vertical access (e.g. elevator, man basket, stairs or ladder) would be offered for ingress/egress,” states TBC’s document. Will be a shed housing ventilation equipment, or a horizontal steel grate.

“That’s not going to work,” Corbett said. “You’re telling rsquo; s traveled thousands of feet will climb a ladder to get out & a grandmother who to me? That’s mad. It’s the definition of insanity. ”

Such inconvenient and long escape routes would also hamper.

“Ingress becomes a concern with tunnels that are long,” said Justin Edenbaum, a tunnel fire and ventilation technology consultant based in Toronto, Canada.

Another problem is that tunnels that are long are infrequent in the United States, a country that has more experience with fires in buildings than underground.

“All of our research in terms of stairwells was done with downward motion,” Corbett explained. “What’s not been well researched are situations where people might need to walk a distance then climb out and to get to a stairwell. This will require a significant amount of research and consideration. ”

A different approach

Transit tunnels have been built recently, in Europe and Asia, engineers have taken a different approach. Instead of separated staircases, cross-passageways that are regular allow passengers to escape fire or smoke into the tunnel or a dedicated safety tunnel.

In 2016, Jae-Ho Pyeon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at San Jose State University, conducted a trend analysis of long tunnels around the world. He found that all built in the last decade have exits spaced far than 2,500 feet, and that the majority of long rail tunnels have crossover connections.

Pyeon concluded: “Configurations connected by cross passages are getting more popular due to demanding safety requirements. ”

A 2015 study by Edenbaum discovered that not only do cross passages allow people to escape a smoky environment faster they let firefighters can reduce building costs, and reach the blaze earlier.

The Boring Company’s take

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions about the Loop system but advised TechCrunch that it had been designed to be the safest transportation system in the world, including compliance with applicable safety and fire protection standards.

In the absence of rules for transit tunnels, the Loop will be subject to the regulations of the jurisdictions it passes beneath. Existing subway systems in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Maryland are all required to follow NFPA standards.

Curiously, TBC has yet to discuss its flagship job with Maryland&rsquo.

“While the Office of the State Fire Marshal hasn’t been contacted by The Boring Company in relation to this proposed [Loop system], we would take the position of implementing our standard underground subway safety standards to such a job to ensure the safety of everybody involved,” said Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci.

That being said, there is a chance that TBC wouldn’t be made to include more shafts or emergency passages.

“[The NFPA standard states that] you can suggest solutions that are superior or equal to the methods that are stated, but they need to get accepted the authority states Edenbaum. “[TBC] may have an argument about it can go as widely spaced as it needs. They could make the case that [the Loop] is safer than a highway. That’s a risk-based assessment, which isn’t very popular in North America, but it’another way to look at it. ”

The draft environmental assessment is currently in its public comment stage, together with a draft agreement between TBC and various federal agencies regarding the Loop’s effect on properties. There are also numerous other licenses and approvals that will be necessary before TBC completes a thorough design and begins digging, including safety assessments.

TBC has suggested projects in other parts of the country with success. The one closest to getting underway this year is in Las Vegas, where TBC has suggested constructing a high-speed underground transit system that would originally transport people around the Las Vegas Convention Center. 

The upshot: For all of Elon Musk’s obsession with speed, the planet ’s longest tunnel won’t be coming.

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