It is a running joke among fliers that the pilot’s job is to simply press autopilot and do a quick weather report. Despite the knowledge that computers already perform the majority of maneuvers, landing, and flying during a flight, passengers are still hesitant to take the pilot away and make planes truly “driverless.” These hesitations are common across the unmanned vehicle industries, where entrepreneurs and investors see a bright future while potential passengers remain skeptical.
What challenges still face the future of driverless vehicles? Is the tech ready or is it just public perception holding it back?
One of the major motivators to move this tech forward is simple dollars and cents. UBS estimates savings of $15 billion if passenger and cargo planes reduce their pilots to one, and an additional $20 billion if pilots were eliminated entirely.
With a major pilot shortage expected soon, the need to remove them from the equation will only grow more pressing. The technology is progressing rapidly, with a focus on taking the need for pilots to monitor, adjust, and tweak instruments during a long haul. Innovators envision pilotless planes with reduced crew sizes and teams in stations on the ground doing additional monitoring for potentially hundreds of flights simultaneously. A majority of fliers still refuse to fly without a pilot, though perceptions may shift as cars get a similar treatment.
Uber’s rough year of accidents has many questioning if driverless cars have the momentum necessary to go mainstream. At the moment, one of the most curious and difficult challenges facing those behind driverless cars has to do with other humans on the road. Autonomous cars are currently programmed to be extremely cautious, which can be frustrating to human drivers who are more aggressive. Innovators are balancing a need to accommodate for such behavior or hoping that humans adjust as well. Though Uber’s driverless fatal accident has eyebrows raised, initiatives around the country are moving forward to test driverless cars on the road.
Industry observers recognize that a pilotless plane simply has less to worry about, easing the requirements on the tech in a given moment. The problem remains breaking down barriers of trust and societal expectations around having someone behind the wheel. With unique and formidable challenges facing these two major sectors, it’s truly up in the air whether we will see pilotless planes or driverless cars first.