Home Technology While COVID-19 Batters The Airlines, Driverless Car Technology Marches On – Forbes

While COVID-19 Batters The Airlines, Driverless Car Technology Marches On – Forbes

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While COVID-19 Batters The Airlines, Driverless Car Technology Marches On - Forbes

TOPSHOT – An aerial picture taken on April 12, 2020 in Ecublens, western Switzerland. (Photo by … [+] Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

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A while back, my colleague and I wrote an article about how driverless cars will disrupt the airline industry. We were not the first ones to say this, but we were the first to publish consumer opinion data to back up our claims. This is particularly true for short haul flights, as the majority of respondents said they preferred a driverless car for road trips up to eight hours over the hassles of flying commercial—even when the flight might take less time. Their reasons included wanting to avoid long security lines, delayed flights, lost baggage, small seats, and crowded airplanes.

Dr. Mattie Milner recently defended her dissertation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which focused on what type of person would prefer a driverless car over flying commercial. Her findings showed people prefer driverless cars over commercial flight for short and midrange drives. In addition, she found that personal comfort and emotions are strong predictors of consumer choice between driverless cars and commercial flight. In other words, people generally did not feel good about, or comfortable with, flying commercial. And this was before COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the world. As Milner states, “The onset of driverless vehicle technology was already set to disrupt the commercial aviation industry before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with heightened concerns around safety and fear of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, the commercial aviation industry will be fighting an uphill battle not only to survive, but to rekindle faith in wary travelers.”

As of May 2020, airlines are taking a beating. Several have gone bankrupt due to loss of customers. The major airlines have lost up to 90% of their customers in less than three months, and the major aircraft manufacturers are cutting jobs and slashing output. Dr. Rian Mehta, assistant professor of aviation at Florida Institute of Technology, says, “The only reasons we’re still seeing this many flights is because of the agreement made in the CARES Act. Airlines are required to maintain a minimum level of service. Without that, major airports like MCO in Orlando might have close to zero flights a week instead of 38 (average weekly departures for 2019 were 2725).” Despite this agreement, airlines continue to petition the Department of Transportation to allow them to cancel near-empty routes. United Airlines reported a $1.7 billion quarterly loss, and other airlines are also hemorrhaging cash. Tens of thousands of employees are taking unpaid furloughs, with no guarantee of returning to work in the near future. Things are very bad.

Meanwhile, driverless car technology marches on. Software engineers continue working on the latest developments and car manufacturers know that once the holy grail is uncovered (fully autonomous technology that does not require a human driver), they can rapidly build these cars for the general public. The COVID-19 crisis does not seem to be hindering their progress nearly as much as other industries.

In fact, driverless cars are helping in the fight against COVID-19 and are building positive public opinion in the process. In the United States, self-driving cars are being used to help deliver food, medicine and other necessary supplies. In the Bay Area, driverless cars help food banks deliver groceries without the risk of human-to-human contact. The Mayo Clinic is using driverless cars to transport COVID-19 tests in Florida. Nuro is doing the same thing in California. People have largely forgotten about the fatal hiccups of the past, and before this crisis is over, driverless cars may be viewed as one of the heroes of the struggle against this pandemic.

Before COVID-19, airlines already struggled to maintain consumer appreciation. Dr. Milner points out that airlines’ customer satisfaction ratings ranked in the bottom 20%—barely better than insurance companies. Complaints about poor service, nitpicky fees, small seats, germs and delayed flights have dogged the industry for years. Now they have to contend with general public anxiety about getting into a cramped space with hundreds of other people who might or might not have COVID-19. There are a few brave souls who still fly, but it will take some time before the rest of the public comes back. In fact, it will likely take a full-court press on the part of the airlines, including mandatory testing, face masks and social distancing, to tempt passengers back to the airports. Even then, most experts think this will impact the airline industry for years.

Meanwhile, the driverless car industry rolls on, largely unhindered by these problems. In fact, when they roll out the first personal driverless car, they can use COVID-19 as an advertisement. Travel in comfort by yourself. Avoid the long lines and crowded airports. Have a good sleep while we deliver you in comfort and style to your destination. Be safe. These cars will sell like hotcakes. Before COVID-19, we predicted driverless cars would disrupt the airlines. If they go on sale before this crisis is over, the airline industry may never recover to pre-2020 numbers.

Obviously, this is all dependent on finding that holy grail. Right now, these cars are not ready for widespread use on public roads. They still struggle to cope with traffic and unpredictable human drivers around them. Bad weather or messy road conditions make things worse. Despite over-optimistic assertions that we will have fully autonomous cars by the middle of 2020, it may take many more years before we see one in our neighbor’s driveway.

Right now, it’s a race between these two industries. But it’s starting feel like the airline industry is a high school student with leg irons trying to race against Usain Bolt. Milner says, “To survive in a post-COVID-19 society, commercial airlines will have to rethink important aspects of travel, such as interior aircraft design and prioritizing passenger comfort and safety.” The question remains whether they are able to make that transition quickly enough.

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