Every day, 2.6 million passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports. Americans also took more than 35 million passenger trips each day by rail and bus in 2017. Imagine if robot software entirely ran these trips. Already, some operations use automated technology. The question is are American passengers willing to let robots fully control the skies, rail and other mass transit?
It depends on the mode, according to a new survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. Americans most often choose rail (82%) as the transportation mode best suited for self-driving technology. Water transportation, like ferries and cruise ships (57%) are next. Two in five respondents say the same thing of roadways. People are least likely to pick air flight (19%).
Their answers reflect the logic of the least opportunity for risk, says Chris Jackson, an Ipsos vice president. “Most people drive and the majority of Americans have flown in life, whereas relatively few Americans use water or rail transportation by comparison,” he says.
Just 15% of passengers in the U.S. say they would be comfortable in a pilotless plane. Most would choose to stay grounded with no human pilot in the cockpit. About two-thirds of those surveyed wouldn’t fly in an autonomous flight even with a 30% fare cut.
Resistance is strong, even with discounts
It mirrors people’s aversion to autonomous cars. Americans and Canadians are more resistant to the idea of driverless cars than people in other countries, according to a global Ipsos survey on mobility. Nearly one in four Americans “would never use” one. Americans were slightly more likely to keep driving their own cars even if it cost much less that what it costs to own and maintain a car today. “People don’t like the idea of risk or a change that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted,” says Jackson.
The exceptions? Among American Millennials, 55% said they would use a self-driving vehicle, according to an Ipsos survey on the mobile future. Similarly, 56% of Canadians said they’d switch to an autonomous vehicle if the cost were much lower. Millennials more than older peers say passenger planes are suitable for self-piloting mode.
Ironically, much of air flight already operates in autopilot. Pilots operating Boeing 777s said they spend seven minutes on manual operation per flight and those piloting Airbus planes spent half that, according to an oft-quoted survey of airline pilots by Duke University.
Industry pressure to automate
Yet, several trends are putting pressure on airlines to lower the Federal Aviation Administration’s two-pilot requirement. America already is short on commercial pilots and that’s expected to get worse as thousands approach retirement. Aerospace companies are investing heavily in automated flight technology to reduce costs and boost profits. Meanwhile, some airlines are pushing to eliminate one pilot to cut costs and manage workloads.
“During unexpected situations in flight, the highest levels of safety are only achieved with two trained-for-life pilots on the flight deck,” said Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA president, in a statement.
So ready or not, the transportation industry is pursuing change and will need to convince people that computers can pilot your ride. “These measures can change as you see the technology work and have a safe track record,” says Jackson. “The greater attention now is to the accidents they’ve had, not the thousands of miles they were able to travel with no problem. With air travel, it would be the same issue.”