Will More People Go Cross-Country In Self-Driving Cars Rather Than Flying?

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 11:48am
Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 3:08pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Autonomous, driverless cars will be on the roads soon — wow soon we don't know — but when they arrive they will completely change the ways we choose to get around. Street traffic will be affected, but what about air travel? Will more people choose to sit in the backseat of an automobile and be driven around rather than take a flight? Steven Rice professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has looked into that and with me to talk about what he learned. So Stephen I know you looked into how automation could affect aviation in terms of pilotless aircraft, but what made you interested in studying the possible impact of autonomous cars on air travel?

STEPHEN RICE: We just started to have some conversations in our lab about how cool would it be, really, to have a driverless car? And, furthermore, what could you do with a car once it's driverless? I mean, obviously you would take out to the front seat because it's no longer necessary you don't need to have the dashboard steering wheel. Basically it would be a moving camper. You could put even a La-Z-Boy or a bed in there — and we just started talking about how awesome would that be, to jump in a jump in a car on a Friday night you know arrive in Washington D.C. 12 hours later after a good night's sleep, watch a movie, you know, have some breakfast and then get ready to go. And then we made that connection. Oh, well that would mean we don't fly. And that's when I really start to think about OK so what would the consumer say about that? And that's where the research really began along these lines, is trying to find out what other people think about that and would they give up the flying, you know, for the convenience of riding in a car instead.

GOLDSTEIN: So let's talk about where the line sort of was for people, how far would they be willing to drive themselves, how long a trip would it have to be for them to decide, 'OK I would rather take an autonomous car than an airplane' and what are some of the factors that made them think air travel was just really too big a pain?

RICE: The study that we ran we looked at different lengths of a drive, like five hours, seven hours, 11 hours and so forth, and we've done follow up studies since then looking at different time frames and what we're generally finding is that people really prefer to drive any way even if they have to drive manually if it's a short drive up to like say four hours four or five hours even, people just don't like the process of going on an airplane. You spend a couple hours, you know, prior to the actual flight as you have to drive to the airport, you have to find parking you've got to go to check in, you've got to go through TSA, you've got to sit and wait for your airplane and, assuming no delays, that's a two hour window. Then you get in the airplane and you fly for whatever an hour or so and then when you get out you've got to go get your bags and, you know, go get a rental car or whatever. This is a household that everybody is familiar with and it doesn't take a lot to get people to think that through when the drive starts to get a little bit longer like seven hours, nine hours, 11 hours people don't really want to manually drive because that's exhausting. They'd really rather just let somebody take them there and so they're more willing to fly in an aircraft in that situation. But once you remove the hassle of actually having to drive yourself, now people start to move back towards the car. In a driverless car, particularly with seven hours, nine hours 11 hour drive, people really want to be in the driverless car because they realize the following: They can leave at say seven o'clock at night, they can watch a movie, have a drink, go to sleep and wake up the next morning 11 hours later, you know, in another city and already have a car. That sort of time frame, the seven, nine, 11 hour time frame is really ideal for driverless cars and not ideal at all for commercial flight. So I guess the take home message here on that is is that it's the short haul flights that are the ones that are going to be competing with the driverless cars.

GOLDSTEIN: And do you think the aviation industry is shaking in its boots a bit about this? What sort of plans would they try to make to counter it?

RICE: Well I think it really depends on who you talk to. I mean we have talked to people in aviation who tell us 'wow I've never even thought about that.' And on the other hand we've talked to people who have said 'oh yeah we've been considering this and you know we're taking steps now.' They're obviously not going to tell me or you or the public what those steps are at this point because, you know, they keep doing these things close to the vest. And it's the same thing with the car companies I mean they're not going to, you know, they're not going to share any more than they have to at this point. But I would imagine that the airlines that have the hub and spoke model which is the model where you take the short haul flight to the hub and then you take the longer flight from hub to hub, they're going to be more concerned about this because it's those short haul flights that are going to be affected. If you live in say Savannah Georgia, why would you fly to Atlanta, do a two hour layover when you could just have your car drive you to Atlanta, drop you off at the airport and then drive itself home? So they probably are more concerned about it.

GOLDSTEIN: We all have I mean those of us who are over 40 have fond memories of what it used to be like to fly and it wasn't just 'hey we're running from home, oh my god, I got to make my flight, oh what's going to happen?' The flights were a little bit more comfortable, you know, comfortable can be a relative word, but is there anything to counter this that, at least in some cases, the aviation industry might say 'you know, some of those autonomous cars are doing some things pretty interestingly. So maybe we'll have a few flights here and there that are a little bit more comfortable for folks and maybe they have to pay a little bit more, but it's not flying in first class, but it will make it so we're going to try to compete a little bit more, not in all flights certainly.' But would that just be just not cost efficient for them to even try?

RICE: No, I think that is actually cost efficient for them to try and I think they are doing it, not in direct competition with driverless cars because they're not here yet, but just simply because there's a lot of people who are just fed up. I mean, the seat pitch on the economy class for most airlines in America now, you know, are like 31, 32 inches, which is tiny compared to the way it was when you and I were younger. So now we have premium economy a lot of new aircraft are coming out with a good large section of premium economy, a lot of the airlines are refurbishing their old aircraft and including, you know, that extra leg room so you can get a seat which is, say, 38, 39 inches instead of 30 or 31. You get a little wider seat, you get the leg rest, a little more comfort and you pay a couple hundred extra bucks for that. So I do think that they already know that people are fed up with, you know, the cattle class and are doing something about it for people who are willing to pay a little extra. Whether they continue towards that direction when driverless cars come around it, seems like that might be a good idea to do certainly. If you're competing with somebody who has a bed in their car and then, you know, you have to do something to convince them that this is going to be a pleasant experience, because like you said it's just not pleasant anymore. It used to be fun to fly. Now it's just a chore for the most part.

GOLDSTEIN: Stephen Rice is professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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