Despite all the fits and starts that companies like Uber and Google have experienced in trying to make driverless cars happen on a grand scale, the industry outlook is still optimistic, with analysts predicting that 25 percent of all vehicles will be self-driving by 2030. And the benefits of autonomous automobiles are obvious, from fewer accidents to less traffic to better fuel efficiency. But, pilotless flying?
According to a report from the Swiss bank UBS, the aviation industry could save up to $35 billion a year by removing human pilots from the equation. Though the technology to operate commercial airplanes without pilots doesn’t actually exist yet—and may not for several decades—the economic perks would apparently be too good to pass up.
Airlines typically employ 10 pilots per aircraft, according to reprting by CNN, but when you don’t have to spend as much on training, salaries and other costs that come with being a pilot—captain’s hats? Aviator sunglasses? Mandatory Blu-Rays of the Denzel Washington film Flight?—that’s a lot of cheddar left on the table.
The industry’s ears are perked because it could be facing a pilot shortage in the coming decades. Last week, Boeing predicted that we’ll have 41,000 new airliners between 2017 and 2036, and thus, will need 637,000 new pilots to operate them. Couple those stats with mounting pilot retirements and their associated costs, and demand may outpace supply. Pilotless planes may also mean cheaper flights; according to the UBS report, if cost savings only affected consumers, tickets would be about 11 percent cheaper in the United States.
All this is well and good, but also, nope, nope, nope. The thought of lounging in the backseat of a Volvo while a non-sentient robot quietly navigates quaint suburban roads is palatable enough. Now imagine sitting in a 500-ton aluminum bird at 35,000 feet above some ocean, without any humans in the cockpit to stop you from plummeting to death should something calamitous happen—all because you wanted to save $36 on your flight to Reno.
I know, I know: Pilots essentially only fly airplanes a few minutes before turning on autopilot and pressing some buttons here and there for the rest of the flight, but we still feel comfortable knowing they’re manning the controls through turbulence. Entrusting a computer to safely fly you to your destination is a lot like paying a horse to watch your dog, to borrow a joke from John Mulaney.
Fortunately, other people feel the same way. According to the UBS report, only 54 percent of travelers surveyed would agree to take a pilotless flight. Remind me to never fly with them.