Autonomous Commercial Aircraft – Who Asked For It Technology

In the seemingly unstoppable rollout of who-asked-for-it and what’s-next technology, automated commercial airliners seems to be a hot topic these days. To this end, a just released UBS study argues that a vast savings realized from putting pilots out of work will overcome our demonstrated reluctance to not having a Sully Sullenburger, or anyone for that matter, in the cockpit when the poop hits the fan.

Fortunately, writing for Forbes Dan Reed penned a much more cogent and ordered response to this “Wall Street knows best” report than I am able to for this blog. Read it here:

Mr. Reed argues that any lower consumer costs can only get us so far up this particular mountain because there are very significant barriers to autonomous airliners, especially when one considers that in commercial air travel, the safety “bar” is set at a zero failure rate (i.e. no fatalities). These barriers include: nowhere near ready for primetime technology, as of yet undreamed of regulatory requirements and schemes, conveniently and vastly underestimated financial barriers, and a widespread and persistent lack of consumer acceptance that will likely span generations.

The technology piece is probably the lowest of these hurdles to leap, which isn’t to say it will be anything approaching easy. In high reliability industries like commercial aviation and nuclear power generation, outright adoption of disruptive technology doesn’t just happen because a tech billionaire has a wet dream. Technological change is stepwise, and even glacial, and with very good reason. These are industries where even the smallest of human errors can result in catastrophic and outsized loss of life and property. Proponents speak as if many pieces necessary for autonomous control of aircraft are on the shelf and ready to go. Tell me how Equifax just lost the most personal information of fully half the American population to hackers, yet we are somehow ready now with AI and to harden and protect the IT, control systems, spectrum and data links needed to control and back-up an autonomous commercial airliner?  There is a nice looking, slightly used CIA RQ-170 drone now owned by Iran that might tell a very different story.

Predictably, UBS envisions that the incentives to autonomous airliners will revolve around money. The UBS report concludes that lower expenses for the airlines will inevitably mean lower ticket prices for consumers, which in turn will inexorably drive demand in our relentlessly cost conscious society. Reed however, wisely touches upon the cost of R/D, certification and investments in consumer acceptance as just some of the expense categories which don’t seem to be addressed in the UBS report.

Boeing and Airbus will have to spend untold billions developing and certifying fully autonomous airliners, but to what end? Simply lowering Delta’s costs out of the goodness of their corporate hearts? No chance. Anything to do with airplanes, especially their development and certification is very, very expensive and these staggering costs will be passed along in the sticker price of the airplanes eventually delivered. Further, we aren’t just talking about the certification of a new airplane, which is already an expensive and risky undertaking (787 anyone), but equally importantly will be the necessary development of an entirely new operational and regulatory paradigm for commercial aviation, something that will need to be paid for and proven to be as safe as the current one, a mark that is currently well in excess of 99.9% safe for the major US air carriers.   Untold years of development, testing and certification await. None of this comes cheap and consumers will be expected to pay, if they can even be found to fill the seats.

Speaking of reluctant consumers, one can envision the airlines flying empty autonomous planes around until the concept is proven to be as safe as our current commercial aviation model.  Also, Boeing and Airbus will likely have trouble finding companies willing to be on the pointy end of this particular spear because the United, American and Delta’s of the world understand the existential risk of crashing even one airplane. If history is any guide though, it’s a safe bet that airplane manufacturers will do what any industry with an army of lobbyists and an expensive and untested new product facing a questionable market would do: lobby the government to provide financial, regulatory and liability assistance with the development and certification of the aircraft and to deliver tax and liability incentives to early adopters of the new technology.

Put another way, we’ll all get to pay for technology the vast majority of us don’t want, won’t be fundamentally better than what it is replacing and won’t meaningfully lower consumer prices for a long, long time, if ever.

We are living in a golden age of aviation safety. In fact, from 2010 to the present there have been zero fatalities on US passenger airlines. That is not to say however, there haven’t been accidents, errors and mistakes made by humans, pilots included, during the past seven years. Yet high reliability industries like commercial aviation have developed an incredible safety system which recognizes and accounts for the centrality of humans to the process of keeping airplanes out of the dirt. This safety system employs a many layered approach built around humans’ inherent strengths and innate weaknesses.

Put another way, it’s because of well trained and proficient pilots that commercial airplanes don’t crash more often, not despite them. As the saying goes, the pilot is always the first person at the crash scene. Self-preservation has been a prime and generational motivator when it comes to the marvel that is aviation safety. The same cannot be said about the drone operator, computer programmer or Boeing and Airbus’ CEOs – they will all go home to their families at the end of a bad day, regardless of how many mistakes they make at work.  And if a computer was controlling US Airways flight 1549 in January 2009, it wouldn’t have even registered the loss of 155 lives stemming from its inability to conceive of reacting the way Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles did to save those people and themselves on that cold day.

It’s instructive to note that the US Department of Defense reports that it lost at least 140 unmanned aerial vehicles, and probably many more that we don’t know of, during the last seven years. This is an astounding accident rate.  To be sure, a few of these were lost to enemy fire, which is a risk airliners generally don’t face. However, the overwhelming majority were not. Every one of those drone operators packed up his or her gear and went home to their families after the aircraft they were flying turned into a smoking hole somewhere. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator.

It’s possible that some disruptive technology is just a waste of money. The problem, to my mind is when the money wasted is mine (in the form of tax dollars), the return on investment doesn’t justify the expense and most importantly in aviation, safety is compromised. Perhaps the time, money (private and public) and brain cells that will have to be spent on developing, testing and certifying autonomous airliners that few consumers will want to fly in could be directed towards a more noble pursuit. Let’s get back to developing airplanes that fly higher, faster, farther, cleaner, quieter and ever more safely. We should also develop systems that enable pilots to more intuitively interface with the important and necessary automation that will help them fly these future airplanes more safely and with less fatigue.

I cannot fully envision the cockpit of 100, or even 50 years from now, but I hope it will be a marvel, blending augmented reality and seamless man-machine interfaces all focused on perfect safety – and I definitely see pilots in it. Simply put, if I’m sitting in the back, then someone’s ass needs to be on the line up front.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *