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Researchers predict self-driving cars will disrupt the airline industry

But that assumes all travelers will be able to afford an autonomous vehicle

Photo (c) metamorworks - Getty Images
Autonomous vehicles are widely seen as revolutionizing ground transportation, but researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University say they could have an even bigger impact on airlines.

Today, people usually head for the airport when they have a long trip. Driving eight to 10 hours to reach a destination is not that appealing. But the researchers say that could change if travelers could settle back in a driverless vehicle with a good book, or take a nap, while the car takes them to their destination.

“Our research has revealed just how much people’s travel preferences could shift, and found a new potential challenge to the airline industry,” the authors write.

Hypothetical trips

The researchers showed people hypothetical trips of different lengths and asked whether they would rather drive themselves, take a flight, or ride in a self-driving car. It was no surprise that when compared to driving themselves, people chose a driverless car.

The longer the trip, the more likely participants were to choose air travel. But taking a ride in an autonomous vehicle got more attractive when they were told they would need to rent a car once they arrived at their destination. With the autonomous vehicle, they were told the car would take them directly to where they were headed.

This, the researchers conclude, is bad news for the airline industry, which must fly crowded planes to achieve any kind of profit margin.

“These changes could substantially change the aviation industry, with airlines ordering fewer airplanes from manufacturers, airports seeing fewer daily flights and lower revenue from parking lots, and even airport hotels hosting fewer guests,” the authors write. “The future of driverless cars is appealing to consumers – which means the future of commercial flight is in danger.”

Cost considerations

Then again, maybe not. The authors concede they did not look at how the cost of each mode of transportation might affect consumers’ choices. And costs are a critical factor that could make self-driving cars less of a threat to the airline industry.

The current economics surrounding driverless cars do not assume private ownership. That’s because these vehicles are incredibly expensive and beyond the reach of nearly all middle-class consumers.

Driverless car advocates -- and there are many -- envision these vehicles as part of ride-sharing fleets, operated by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and a host of competitors that are sure to spring up.

“Consumers willing to give up personal car ownership may see the greatest individual savings,” esurance writes on its website. “Experts predict that far fewer people will actually own cars, cutting the cost of their daily commute in half.”

It’s true that summoning a driverless car to take you to work might not be that expensive. But hiring one to drive you from Atlanta to Wasington, DC is likely to be much more expensive than an airline ticket.

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