Press "Enter" to skip to content

Contrary to Recent Headlines, Self-Driving Cars Won’t Kill the Aviation Industry

Self-driving cars are coming.

Maybe not in the next five years — or even ten — but likely in the lifetime of many of those reading this article, making for a very exciting period in tech. Already, automakers from Tesla to Ford have invested billions of dollars in autonomous vehicle technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT), sensors, and more. Just as the integration of these technologies into computers and phones have led to lightning-speed advancements, the incorporation of technologies and embedded systems into cars will completely revolutionize the automotive industry.

Some vehicles on the market today are already equipped with autonomous functionality, such as self-parking and auto-collision avoidance features. These advanced systems install partial automation, or Level 2, in which the driver assistance system occasionally takes over the vehicle’s steering, acceleration, and deceleration using sensor and vision data about the driving environment. Engineers are developing systems that will get us to full-time autonomous vehicle operation, or Level 5, in which vehicles are completely self-driving and able to handle any road condition, type of weather, and unbound to geo-fenced locations. Level 5 autonomy will completely transform the automotive industry, but let’s consider the impact on other transportation modes.

The game-changing prospects of fully self-driving cars will undoubtedly have a significant effect on competing transportation industries. Already we have seen the promise of self-driving cars cast a dark cloud over the future of the aviation industry. In recent months, headlines of articles have forewarned: “Driverless cars are coming for the airlines” and “Driverless cars are going to disrupt the airline industry.” The authors of these articles frequently include research data and statistics portending how consumers’ travel preferences will increasingly favor cars over planes as driverless cars become more capable and common.

However, to predict the imminent demise of airlines is a bit premature. This is not a case of a car, aka horseless carriage replacing the horse and buggy. The major technological revolution taking place in the automotive industry will also have salutary effects on other transportation industries. Accordingly, the future of self-driving cars and the airline industry isn’t an either-or question and studies published leaving such impression fail to paint the whole picture.

In peering into our crystal ball of how self-driving cars will affect the aviation industry, it is helpful to reflect upon the past. When air travel was beginning to become popular, the question was, “Will consumers leave trains for planes?” History shows that this did not occur. In fact, Amtrak released data for 2018 showing its trains added riders, while most major airlines showed profits, as well. Planes and trains continue to be complementary and cost-effective ways to move large numbers of people from place-to-place, and as space is the most valuable resource in dense urban areas, cities need to encourage these types of public transit.

Perhaps the biggest threat many commentators suggest self-driving cars pose to the airlines is competition to short-haul flights. Such flights, also commonly referred to as commuter flights, are taken largely by business people. Some airlines target this passenger segment. For example, Southwest Airlines started out offering flights between nearby cities – New York to Baltimore, Los Angeles to San Francisco, etc. Although the actual travel time of these flights are short – often lasting no more than two hours – the additional time spent getting to and from the airport, going through security checks, waiting for the flight, and other hassles that are currently associated with flying add time and inconvenience to the trip. When a business traveler is asked whether to spend six hours going to Los Angeles from San Francisco in a self-driving car – where they can spend that time working, eating, or even sleeping – or travel by plane and deal with all of the hassles of flying, the decisional trade-offs of how to get there become more of a jump ball.

However, the edge on this tip-off may decidedly go to the airlines. In this regard, the transportation industry is a delicate ecosystem and changing one variable will have a ripple effect on both intended and unintended consequences. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 787 million passengers took domestic flights in the United States from April 2018 to April 2019, averaging to 2.15 million passengers flying each day. Many of those were commuter passengers. Even if a fraction of those commuters were to opt to begin traveling in self-driving cars instead of flying, such decisions would lead to thousands of more cars clogging intra-city highways and the already choked streets and roads within many major cities. The automotive gridlock would naturally nudge driverless car commuters back to commuter flights.

Moreover, the airline industry will push back directly on the new driverless car competition by making air travel more appealing. We’re already seeing airports implement services to improve the flying experience such as TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, already making the airport journey far more tolerable. Airports have also worked to become more enjoyable places. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK, for example, includes restaurants, Wi-Fi and charging stations, and a spa. It’s also important to keep in mind that autonomous technology will not be limited to cars. In the future we will have fully autonomous trains, buses, trolley systems, and of course, planes. In fact, the technology for autonomous aviation has existed for years in the “auto-pilot” function, which in large measure gives testament to aviation’s safety track record. Removing pilots from planes is the aviation industry’s goal just as much as the automotive industry’s focus on driverless cars.

The automation of flight would save the airline industry as much as $110 billion annually solely by cutting the cost of labor. Other expenses that would see drastic drops include fuel consumption due to the optimization of speed, altitude, and trajectory possible when human error or misjudgment is removed by taking away the pilot. Additionally, without the need for human pilots, airlines would no longer need to adhere to regulations regarding training, retraining, and limitations on when and the number of hours pilots can fly, leading to greater flexibility in scheduling or not cancelling a flight due to unavailability of a pilot or co-pilot. Just as driverless cars will completely change the automotive industry, autonomous flight will likely positively change the entire airline business model. Such changes may see the airline industry return back to its roots as a luxury experience, not the rudimentary commodity service many passengers see it as today.

We also need to take into consideration that the future of aviation will not only focus on planes but flying cars, as well. Sebastian Thrun, Kitty Hawk chief executive officer and former head of Google’s self-driving car team, believes the next generation autos could get us in the air. Although this may sound like a science fiction fantasy, Thrun shared in a recent sit-down interview with Bloomberg that Kitty Hawk has already completed over 35,000 test rides of its electric aircraft and noted the company’s great relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration.

With that said, self-driving cars, autonomous planes, and flying cars are all in the infancy stages of their respective industries as there are still many technological hurdles that need to be addressed before mainstream adoption can occur. The engineers behind the scenes are still perfecting the foundational elements – sensors, 5G, security – that are the heart of these autonomous vehicles. Transportation is a complicated ecosystem and although it is not exactly clear what the roads and skyways of tomorrow will look like when the former is populated by self-driving cars, passengers will certainly enjoy enhanced travel experiences on land and in the air.