The state of California recently passed a law that outlines the shape of the state’s future highway plan, paving the way for the integration of so-called “driverless cars” into California’s highway system, which has one-third more high-speed roadway than any other state in the nation. Many of these driverless cars would in fact feature drivers prominently, as they would simply incorporate automated safety features that automate some important safety maneuvering, such as slowing rapidly for stopped traffic ahead. Others would be truly autonomous vehicles, such as commuter trains with no conductors. They do their thing, and everybody is along for the ride.
The future is real. Already, car companies including Mercedes, Lexus, Volvo and Honda are getting in on the game with rear-end collision-avoidance technology, lane-keeping assistance, assistive cruise control, blind-spot detection and more. Automatic driving technology is only going to get more common.
What does this have to do with flying? Like it or not, probably a lot. For almost as long as there have been cars and planes, the two technologies have been imitating each other. Whether it was Cadillac sporting aero-inspired fins, Ercoupe adopting a road-friendly steering wheel in favor of a yoke, or Socata advertising the very automotive-like interiors of its Trinidad, Tobago and Tampico singles, designers and marketers have long aped the ambience of their vehicular kin.
There’s been a lot of technology cross pollination as well. Aviation and space innovation has long influenced automotive design, though it hasn’t had a monopoly in innovating new safety features. Technologies such as seatbelts, airbags, anti-skid braking and aerodynamic drag reduction have moved back and forth between the disciplines, and there is argument with some or all of them as to which transportation sector can rightfully lay claim to the title of inventor.
My point is that aviation does not exist in a vacuum. California’s driverless automobile vision will surely help inform opinion in the world of transportation, including in aviation.
These technologies already are on their way, in some degree, to flying. One important question is: Will pilots accept the idea of flying (or, rather, flying in) an automated airplane?
The bigger question in my mind is: Will I still want to go flying if I’m not doing the flying? The long and short answer to that is even easier.
No way. Regardless of how automated or easy “flying” gets, being an actual pilot is something that they can never, ever automate.