Dear United: Autonomous cars will pull you out of your seat


In 1930, over fifteen years after the first commercial flight,
approximately 6,000 people were flying. Just four years later, the
industry experienced a 75 fold increase and was up over 450K
passengers. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, nearly
1 billion passengers boarded US airliners in 2016.

Early on, a single round trip ticket was about half the price
of a new car. That elite luxury experience has devolved as
airlines have moved to cut costs and increase profits.

Today, for most of us, air travel consists of series of
unfortunate lines, embarrassing checks, and obscure ticketing
rules that leave us in a confined space where we’re
uncomfortably attempting to open tiny packages without
disturbing our neighbors.

The fact is, the market is begging for another option and
they’re racing around the corner.

The Day Trip Experience

My work requires me to travel a lot (for me). Same day round
trip flights are relatively common between cities like LA and
San Francisco or Washington DC, New York and Boston.

My most common these days is between LA and SF. Let’s examine
the experience.

It takes me more than five hours  to get from my apartment
in the Marina District of San Francisco to the Los Angeles
office of a partner. My alarm goes off at 3:30am, then I get ready
and hop a car to SFO. I arrive at the airport after the
30-45-minute trip (traffic’s not bad at 4am), and head through
security to board a flight by 6am to Los Angeles. Then some hour and a
half later, I’m on the other side at LAX hailing a car service
to take me an hour away to my final destination.

Aside from a private jet, or the pending perfection of
Hyperloop, there’s no faster way to get me to my destination.
And while my car or a train might make for a more comfortable
ride, it doesn’t make sense to take either. The drive between
San Francisco and Los Angeles would take about six hours,
during which I wouldn’t be able to get any work done.

On the train, I’d be able to sit and work, but it would take
about 12 hours, which means I’d lose a whole day in transit.
Flying is clearly the best choice, despite being uncomfortable,
oftentimes inconvenient, and delay-ridden, not to mention the
thrill of getting through security.

But short-haul flights like these won’t be my best option in
the future.

Cabin sleeping bus

Cabin’s cabin

Autonomous Subsumes Airlines Short Haul Travel

The rise of autonomous cars provides travelers more options when it comes to making these kinds
of short trips
.

Instead of spending time getting to the airport, waiting in
lines, wishing I could be getting work done in a quiet; I, or a
group of friends or colleagues, could make the journey in the
comfort and safety of a vehicle that drives itself.

It would beat the train, which offers many of the same perks,
but on a much slower timeline. And since I wouldn’t be driving
myself, I’d be productive. I could get work done, pay bills,
or, if I’d completed all my work, kick back and relax with a
movie.

For some people, the notion of autonomous vehicles is still the
stuff of sci-fi fantasy, but autonomous cars are coming quicker
than you’d think. Toyota, Ford, Mercedes, BMW,

Tesla, Nvidia and Google are among a myriad of major companies
pursuing the concept of driverless car technology; and, to
date, five states allow the testing of fully autonomous cars on
public roads. Even by conservative estimates, driverless cars
could be on the market by 2021.

But does this mean that autonomous vehicles could soon muscle
in on the short-haul flight industry? In a word, the answer is
yes.

Comfort is of course a huge factor here.

It’s already been established that driverless cars will
reimagine the design of terrestrial
vehicles
; without the need for a driver or cockpit, that
space could be better used for more leg-room, coffee machines
or conference tables for business travelers. Terrestrial travel
also has the immediate advantage over air of solid wifi
service, effectively freeing travelers from the uncertainty of
spotty or non-existent connectivity while in flight.

Despite the added comfort and convenience that will come from
using driverless cars, I’d still need to take a flight if I
were really in a hurry, right? Well, maybe. With the current
status-quo in place, short-haul flights edge driving by a
click. Driving with current speed limits from San Francisco to
downtown LA typically takes a little over six hours; compare
that to my journey with United, which door-to-door was five
hours, and there’s a clear winner. However, that’s with the
current status-quo.

Many suggest the speed limits on highways could rise with the
improved safety expected to come come with autonomous cars; and
while no one is willing to put an exact figure on this, the
higher travel speeds of driverless cars could end up balancing
out the time saved by traveling via short-haul flight.

The Tesloop Model S

The Tesloop Model S

The Golden Triangle: Faster, Cheaper, and Better

In general, terrestrial short haul may be as fast or slightly
slower than airlines, today. Nevertheless, it’s likely to be
much more consistent on both price and time to the destination.

It’s hard to believe that the experience wouldn’t be more
comfortable door to door and it will, likely, be much more
affordable, especially for business group travel.

Examining price, a direct, round-trip flight from SFO to LAX
can start at $150 with taxes. On average, I’m paying over $300
because I’m often traveling with very little notice. If I’d
like a flexible ticket that price, often, doubles.

According to some estimates, the price of cabs sans driver
could come down as much as three-quarters. If the journey
between LA and SF with one passenger may be twice the cost of
the best price and with more passengers, autonomous travel
would become the cheaper option.

Moreover, the group could co-work or enjoy entertainment as the
move to their destination.

It’s hard to believe that we’d choose to deal with the hassle
and rigidity of airline contracts vs hitting a button on our
smartphone and traveling door-to-door.

The Best Experience Will Win

Millennials are ceremoniously biased to value experiences over things and
wanting more control of their surroundings; these trends
will drive (pun intended) the future of short-haul transport.
What’s possible when you could travel in a mobile living room,
massage parlor, or movie theater is astonishing.

There’s a lot at stake. According to travel expert, Jim Loomis,
“a large number of flights in and out of most of the major hub
cities are to and from cities less than 400 miles away.” This
includes 30-40 percent of arriving flights from Chicago’s
O’Hare Airport. A massive chunk of travel that could shift from
air to land. Moreover, with the lower price point for groups
and added convenience, families may afford to travel more. In
other words, the pie will probably grow.

To be fair, some in the airline industry are realizing that
they are in trouble and are improving customer service and
considering new approaches to making flying more customizable.
It wouldn’t be fair to forget innovations like Airbus’ A3 lab,
for example, which has debuted a concept for a modular airplane.

Equally, United deserves an honorable mention;
however, as they consistently find innovative ways of
abusing their passengers and nickel and diming families. There’s
absolutely no better advertising for more options than
looking at their twitter mentions.

While the ifs around the future of autonomous cars are big,
airline companies like United would still be wise to take note
and prepare themselves for the turbulence that may be shaking
up their industry in the coming years.

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