A New Competitor for the Airlines?

The interior of the Mercedes F015 concept car.
The ‘mobile living space’ interior of the Mercedes F015 concept car.

This week has seen the annual Consumer Electronic Show extravaganza in Las Vegas, and this year has several self-driving car concepts (and realities) being showcased.

Audi, for example, arranged for a modified A7 to drive itself to the show from San Francisco (550 miles away).  And BMW demonstrated an intelligent i3.

Let’s also not forget Tesla’s production vehicles that now offer some limited self-drive capabilities, as part of a $4250 technology option package.

Looking further into the future, Mercedes Benz showed a futuristic concept car that presented their impression of the types of vehicles they’d be selling 15 years hence.

In its presentation, Mercedes got one thing very right and one thing very wrong.  Their error was to think that the concept car would take 15 years to become a reality.  Self-driving cars are already out there, and more are appearing all the time, and perhaps the major remaining hurdles to broader implementation are now legislative and social rather than technical.  The Mercedes concept car more accurately shows us what the future could be like in 15 months, not in 15 years.

On the other hand, their spark of prescience was to note how cars will evolve and become ‘mobile living spaces’.  There will no longer be a distinction between the driver and passengers, and everyone in the vehicle will be free to relax and enjoy the travel time, either through leisure or productive activities.

We now have fast mobile internet data access in much of the country, making it practical to either relax and watch videos/play games/etc or to concentrate on doing some productive work while traveling in a vehicle.  The vehicle’s automatic driving system (and similar driving systems in the vehicles surrounding it on the road) will not only make driving by car much safer than it currently is, but it will also make it smoother and more comfortable, with fewer gratuitous bursts of braking and accelerating.  More efficient driving by computer, closer following distances, and less bunching up, driving slowing down to gawk at something on the side of the road, ‘sun-in-your-eyes’ effects  and other more mysterious slow-downs will also clear out some of the traffic congestion, making travel by car quicker – and even faster still if new laws are passed increasing the speed limits for cars when being driven in auto-mode rather than in self-drive mode.

Now think of the implications of this.

If you could be driven, rather than having to drive yourself, wouldn’t that increase the distance you’d prefer to travel by car rather than to fly?  If you could enjoy the drive more, either by working or relaxing, wouldn’t that again increase the distance you’d happily travel by car?

Thinking about the ‘mobile living space’ concept, we need two or three more features for this transformation to be completed.  The first is an on-board restroom – hardly a stunningly innovative feature, as most RV owners already know.  The second is for on-board sleeping – whether in a ‘real’ bed/lie-flat seat or at least some type of comfortable reclining chair.  A possible third requirement is to increase the range the vehicle can travel between refueling stops.

Put all those together, and you’ve created something transformative.  You could set your car to drive you to your destination over-night, while you sleep on board.  Enjoy dinner – and as many drinks as you like – then get into your car mid evening, watch some video, read a book, and enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep with the drumming of the tires on the road as a nice way to soothe you to sleep.  Wake up the next morning at your destination, refreshed, relaxed, and ready to return to work.

If you had a 600-750 mile range on a single load of fuel (be it petrol, diesel, batteries, hydrogen or some combination of different fuel sources) that maps nicely to an eight to ten or so hour non-stop overnight journey, and think of all the places you could now go to without needing to take a flight.

At present, most people start to prefer flying rather than driving when the distance to be traveled exceeds about 200 miles.  But when our cars become simultaneously automated and also comfortable touring environments, where will the new cross-over point appear?  500 miles?  Even 1000 miles?

The average length of a domestic flight in the US is thought to be about 750 miles.  Does that mean as many as half of all flights could be replaced by driving?  Probably not, for a number of reasons, but even if ‘only’ 10% or 20% of flights were now replaced by road travel in self-driving vehicles, that would have a major impact on the airlines, their route planning, and their profitability.

This will have another interesting effect on the airlines, too.  While they’ve successfully zeroed out most of their competition, in the air, they’ll now find themselves under competitive attack from people’s private cars.  With the low maintenance costs of electric vehicles, and the low wear inherent in steady freeway driving anyway, and improved fuel economies, driving in your own car promises to become closer in cost to that of flying – particularly when you allow for all the related costs of flying – parking at the airport, paying extra for bags, seats, internet and so on, and possibly having to rent a car at the other end too.

Do we need to also point out that driving spares you the need to pay extra for baggage, and there are no change or cancel fees if you decide to change your journey times or cancel entirely!?

Oh – another pesky problem that self-driving cars could also solve?  Parking.  Have your car take you to your meeting location, then send it off to an out-of-the-city-center parking zone, where it can wait until you summon it to come back and collect you.  The car can talk to a central parking service to understand which lots have spaces, and can reserve a space prior to going there.

The transportation revolution of the 20th century was the private vehicle, allowing us all to drive ourselves wherever we wished to go.  The 21st century will take this revolution to its logical conclusion – a private vehicle that now does the driving for us, making travel faster, more convenient and comfortable, safer, and simpler.

4 thoughts on “A New Competitor for the Airlines?”

  1. AARP had a piece about self-driving cars also, pointing out the benefits for elderly people who would otherwise have to give up driving.

  2. Narghiza Ergashova

    Three factors airlines compete on are convenience, accessibility and safety.

    Self-driving concept cars certainly offer increased safety to both passengers and general public. Convenience is the second competitive edge offered by self-driving cars where passengers no longer required to read GPS, worry about parking or fuelling cars. However convenience may be limited due to traffic regulations, speed limits, border control downtimes unlike aircrafts that travel at a consistent speed across travel routes. Convenience could be further limited if self-driving cars are supported by dedicated service networks where passengers cannot fix problems themselves because of sophisticated technologies in place.

    When it comes to accessibility airplanes may maintain a competitive advantage as it is likely that self-driving cars will be too expensive to own outright and may require licensing to operate. Although hiring self-driving cars for holidays for families seems like a great idea!

  3. The problem is that self driving cars are not quite here yet. The ones that do exist are based on very careful mapping of the area to provide the car with all the information about things like lanes, signs and so on. This isn’t the big problem though. The big problem is that the sensors don’t work well when the weather isn’t good. If it starts to rain, or worse, to snow, the car will give you a warning that it is about to disengage.

    I loathe driving, so I’d love to have a self driving car, so I really hope they get the sensor problem and the necessary follow up logic working well. Self driving cars should be able to drive better than I can, ideally a lot better, but I’m guessing ten to fifteen years for general driving applications. For more specialized cases, I wouldn’t be surprised to see self driving a standard feature on limited access highways in the next five to ten years.

    1. Hi

      I agree that self driving cars are not yet a robust technology. But the ones that are in whatever stages of development that are out there don’t rely on careful mapping data and GPS. That would be way too inaccurate and potentially risky/out of date. They use realtime sensors – cameras and recognition software in particular.

      Weather issues are presently a problem and may remain that way for some time to come. But a ‘graceful’ disengage – while a disappointment – is not a fail.

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