There's been plenty of hand wringing about how driverless cars might change our cities, affect our safety, and wipe out the employment prospects of truckers and toll collectors. But here's one part of life you probably never thought would be impacted by the development of driverless cars but probably will be: airlines.

We usually think of driverless cars as a way to zip around town, but as Stephen Rice and Scott Winter, a pair of professors from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, explained recently on The Conversation, as driverless cars become more integrated into our lives, we're likely to start considering them for longer journeys too.

That's good news for consumers but terrible news for the airlines.

Trading hours for comfort

The basic truth underlying the article from Rice and Winter is simple: everyone hates flying. There are delays, uncomfortable seats, ridiculous security checks, hidden fees, etc. Driverless cars travel at only a fraction of the speed of an airplane, but they lack all these annoyances. As they become more common, won't some people start to consider whether they're willing to trade a longer journey for a good deal more comfort?

Rice and Winter offer this thought experiment to illustrate their point:

Imagine someone who lives in Atlanta and needs to travel to Washington, D.C., for business. This is about a 10-hour drive. A flight takes about two hours, assuming no delays. Add to that the drive to the airport, checking in, the security line and waiting at the gate. Upon arrival in D.C., it may take another 30 minutes to pick up any checked bags and find a rental car -- and even more time to drive to the specific destination. The average person would estimate a total travel time of four to five fours. Most people would choose to fly instead of driving themselves.

However, if they could have a fully driverless car take them there, the choice changes. Passengers could eat, drink, work, and sleep during the 10-hour drive. They could leave whenever they want, and pack whatever they want -- including liquids and pocketknives -- with no searches or scans. When they get to D.C., they wouldn't have to find a rental car and navigate to the actual place they're going.

Which would you choose?   

If you're tempted by the 10 hours in relaxed comfort, the professors' research suggests you're far from alone. When they presented people with various hypothetical travel scenarios and asked whether they'd prefer to drive themselves, take a driverless car, or fly, substantial minorities were tempted to kick back and let a robot do the driving. For a seven-hour trip, for instance, 16.7 percent wanted to go driverless and an additional 12.6 percent signed on the idea if it saved them a hassle of renting a car at their destination.

Those aren't massive percentages but they should be enough to worry airlines. "Losing even one in 10 customers would substantially reduce airlines' revenue. They don't make much money on each flight as it is; less income would likely cause them to shrink their service, flying fewer routes less frequently," the professors write.

Of course, all this rests on the assumption that not only will driverless cars become safe, but consumers will believe they're safe. Things appear to be trending in that direction, however. (One also wonders about the environmental impact of replacing so many flights with car trips.) But if driverless cars do become an accepted part of the transportation mix, consumers fed up with airlines' terrible service would cheer, forcing airlines to rethink how they do business.

Would you opt for a driverless car over a flight if you knew it would be safe and comfortable?

Published on: Jun 25, 2019
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