June 28, 2019

Driverless—not flying —cars could end the airline industry.

For now, people will usually choose to fly long distances rather than drive them, but that could change if we decide to start traveling by driverless car. New research from the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace (IJAAA) shows that people see driverless cars as an attractive alternative to flying—even if it takes longer. How will our lifestyles change if the road trip becomes as common as a plane ride?

The real threat to the aviation industry

The biggest threat to the aviation industry stems from the relation between time and stress for passengers and whether or not the industry can address it. On paper, travel times for planes versus driven cars for long haul journeys are night and day, but if we consider the human “overhead” of air travel, say for a 6-hour flight:

  • Before the flight: needing to leave early, travel to an airport, check-in and bag drop, security, waiting for other passengers
  • During the flight: unreliable or costly wifi, poor or insufficient food, lack of restful sleep, stress from the flying experience or other passengers
  • After the flight: delays, deplaning, luggage pick-up, travel into the city from the airport

When you total the costs of air travel on the passenger, you find that you have to add an extra 3-4 hours before and after the flight to get from your accommodations to your actual intended destination in that city. This also doesn’t account for the stresses throughout the whole journey that could leave you exhausted on arrival—even if you’re one of those people who can sleep on a plane. In a worst case scenario, the 3-4 hours overhead and 6 hours of flight time become up to 10 hours of unproductive or unenjoyable time spent on the journey.

By the numbers

The research found that peoples’ willingness to travel long distances by car—where they could carry anything they wanted, work, eat, sleep and get off at their leisure—increased if the car was self-driving.

  • On short trips, with a five-hour drive, two-thirds of people would rather drive themselves, and this didn’t change much when offered a self-driving car
  • However, when told they would need a car in their destination city, nearly three-quarters of people preferred a self-driving car to flying
  • On the longest trip with a 45-hour drive, only about one in 10 people preferred driving themselves—but that changed to one in six when the option was to have a car drive itself.
  • Losing even 1 in 10 customers could substantially reduce airlines’ already low revenues. This isn’t just from not flying at all but by also splitting longer trips between self-driving cars and airplanes.

More cars, more problems

If driverless cars become more widespread, particularly for long haul journeys, we could see:

  • Fewer airplanes ordered from manufacturers and therefore fewer daily flights
  • Lower revenue from parking lots at airports
  • Lower revenue from airport hotels (and likely other services like restaurants and lounges)

In many ways, the impact of driverless cars on air travel could mirror the relation between private vehicles and public transportation: in cities where car ownership is high, demand (and competition) to improve the public transportation system remains low, which in turn impacts the access to mobility for people who rely on public transport.

And even for those who don’t, the impact of more driver-less cars could be as much logistical as it is environmental. For one, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft were found to be responsible for a 60% increase in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. These inefficiencies in already strained systems will almost definitely lead to more emissions and lower air quality. This, in turn, will mean more infrastructure needs to be built including highways for those long hauls, where at least air travel doesn’t need the same extra infrastructure built between destinations.

This could get worse once we move towards more cars and more people who would otherwise take public transport switching to the convenience of driverless cars.

Themes in a greater narrative

If that 45-hour trip statistic is any indication, our willingness to take longer journeys increases proportionately with the freedom we’ll enjoy on that journey, which points to our evolving lifestyles that favor trying to buy ourselves out of focusing on accomplishing one task (such as getting point A to B) and getting some needed time and headspace back in return. There is an upside to this aside from more people opting to car pool between cities.

For creatives, this could mean more and richer experiences of a country not unlike choosing to walk a city rather than take the underground. For many other passengers traveling together such as families, this could mean greater bonding with each other, especially the would-be driver mom or dad. And this doesn’t even cover the peripheral cultural and business initiatives that could pop up with more driverless cars and long haul passengers: an increase in media productions where flights and accommodation would have been prohibitive, more specialized rest stops along popular routes—and most certainly, the unforeseen projects sparked by meeting people along the way we would have otherwise just flown by.

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