Autonomous Cars and Planes: Toward a New Era

Autonomous technologies are without a doubt a significant area of focus and research for multiple industries, including aerospace and automotive. Last week I had the pleasure of participating in Revolution Aero’s Town Hall, a monthly event series that dives into hot topics in aviation by experts in the space. I—alongside some bright minds and companies moving this space forward—discussed the opportunities and unique challenges of building and certifying autonomous systems in everyone’s respective industries.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the session about how autonomy is currently addressed across the aviation and automotive industries, and what the future might look like.

Autonomy as a natural progression

While there certainly is competition between the ground and the sky, AirFinance’s founder and managing partner, Kirsten Bartok Touw, feels autonomy should be both a natural progression and something that is looked at as multi-step. She noted that while automotive has five distinct stages of autonomy, aviation has a less defined path that needs to be achieved through the gradual introduction of autonomy.

Over my own career, I’ve experienced first hand the distinct difference between autonomy in automotive and aviation. While both have the same fundamental objective, they face their own unique challenges. For example, the application of autonomy in the automotive industry triggers a disruptive shift in the overall business and vehicle usage models, most importantly with a shift from individual car ownership (with very low asset utilization) to managed taxi-type services (with high asset utilization). In aviation, the vast majority of aircraft are already used as managed service (such as with airline operators). As such, autonomy in the aviation industry is easier to integrate within the existing business and vehicle usage models of this industry. Not only does autonomy present less of a business risk in aviation due to its infrastructure, it’s more scalable with the right technology—not to mention aircraft are already highly automated today. Autonomy is the natural next step for aviation, yet similar to other industries, it needs to be gradually introduced to ensure safety and regulatory standards are maintained, if not exceeded.

Technology development

When asked logistically which sector of aviation could potentially achieve autonomy first, both Kirsten and David Merrill, the founder and CEO of Elroy Air, agreed on the possibility for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to achieve their milestones before others. This belief is largely centered around the fact that these vehicles carry cargo versus humans, have more flexibility in their flight paths due to their smaller size and have the option to be remotely piloted.

Regardless of the sector, continued technology development is key to achieving milestones on the path to real-world applications. Aviation has made significant progress advancing technologies. For example, Elroy Air’s autonomous cargo aircraft – the Chaparral – is equipped with sensors that allow it to detect major obstacles such as other aircraft when traveling through the sky. From my perspective, the industry’s continued progression is reliant on this technological availability and maturity. A very interesting application of autonomous technologies could potentially be single pilot operations (i.e. one pilot in the cockpit) during the cruise phase of flight, in which case there are still two pilots on board. Single pilot operations is a way to introduce the technology gradually, safely and with constant iteration.

Achieving certification

Safety and certification are also hot topics when it comes to autonomy. Aerospace OEMs have a deep understanding of certification and safety aspects since the stakes and expectations are much higher in our industry versus automotive: there is no such thing as a “fender bender” in aviation. Aviation also operates in a much more controlled environment than automotive, thereby navigating several layers of traffic deconfliction. Under the FAA today, there’s no predefined way in which companies can build and approve autonomous technologies, which opens the door for collaboration amongst industries to address the safety concerns that exist.

Public acceptance

Closely tied to safety concerns is public perception. Despite initiatives from Waymo and Cruise to completely remove drivers altogether, the Financial Times’ Patrick McGee feels there’s still some hesitation from the public when it comes to autonomous cars, especially in urban areas with dense populations. In the air, he feels it’s more about whether people want to look above them and potentially see hundreds of vehicles flying around. While it may bring more efficiency to travel and lighten up the roadways, there’s some apprehension as to whether the positives outweigh any potential negatives.

My biggest takeaway is that we’re only at the beginning of our autonomy journey, and similar to many technological breakthroughs, we need to treat it as a marathon, and not a sprint. Each industry has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to achieving autonomy, and we’ll see more momentum as innovation, R&D and the rapid rise in investments in the space continue.

- Arne Stoschek