Saturday, January 4, 2014

WWCF: Self-Flying Plane or Self-Driving Car

Which will come first?

Self-flying aircraft commonly used over American airspace
Self-driving cars commonly used on American roads

This post is inspired from conversations with a colleague. We agree that these innovations are coming and that it will probably be in stages. I believe our ultimate predictions are in alignment as well.

The technology will likely be out in front of the legislation as is commonly the case, and the legislation will probably be waiting on public and special interest opinion as it commonly my contention. Yet encouraging signs have been seen. The FAA has approved test sites for aerial drones (a step toward but still shy of the subject here since today's drones are piloted albeit remotely). Similarly, Nevada, Florida, California, and to some extent Michigan have approved autonomous car testing on their public roadways. 

As for advancement coming in stages, my thinking is that regarding both public opinion and legislation there are fewer hurdles for package transportation than there are for human transportation. The first stage will be the delivery of cargo via self-guided vehicle. This might mean one method paves the way for the others and the other three follow suit together (e.g., a self-flying plane delivers packages for FedEx and then sometime after that self-flying planes for commercial passengers comes about just as self-driving delivery cars and personal cars/taxis are made available). 

That last example lends itself to my ultimate prediction on WWCF. Large-scale cargo shipments via plane have perhaps the most to gain with the least to risk in the self-guided future to come. Among the advantages are the economies of scale offered (routes no longer limited to pilot availability and scale in both vehicle and network), the limited natural enemies (taxi unions and personal-injury lawyers are more formidable than are the pilots potentially displaced), and the concentration of benefits (a few package delivery firms). 

I think self-flying planes will be with us to some significant extent within a decade and cars will follow ten years after that. The planes will carry cargo only for the first five years. 

So I predict we will soon be saying, "Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane! Yup, that's exactly what it is. A plane that self flies like a bird."

Update: I am reminded by the colleague mentioned above that there is another facet of self-flying planes that might in fact precede cargo delivery. That would be crop dusting. Search and rescue would be another use. The low risk of danger to bystanders might help these types of uses be the first mover.