Thursday, February 13, 2014

Would you fly in a plane that has no pilot?

I asked this question of an audience I was addressing recently – in fact, it was the title of the talk.

The more research I did, the more interesting the question became.  I started with a brief history of multi-person, motorised vehicles.

The first such vehicle was the train.  The first steam-powered passenger service was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that started in 1830.  And I’m sure that none of my grandparents would have answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Would you go on a train that has no driver or engineer?’

The first driverless train was the Victoria Line on the London Underground in 1967.  Today there are thousands of driverless trains all over the world.  We never question whether we should go on one.  In fact, we are puzzled when a short-haul train, such as at airports between terminals, has a driver.  ‘What a waste,’ we think.

The second type of multi-person motorised vehicle was, of course, the automobile.  So, I have to ask the question ‘Would you be a passenger in a car that has no driver?’  When I posed this question at my talk, I was surprised at how many people said they would.

I’m sure you are aware at some level of the efforts being made to produce a driverless car.  Google is at the forefront of this research, and all major automobile manufacturers say they will have such vehicles by 2020.

You may wonder why there is such a big push to produce such a vehicle.  The obvious reason is for safety.  In 2010 there were 1.24 million road deaths in the world (33,000 in the USA).  The economic and emotional cost of this carnage is huge.  For the most part, the biggest problem of road travel is the driver.  Drivers often operate their vehicles when they shouldn’t – too much booze or drugs, too tired, driving too fast for conditions, showing off, texting, and so on.

An automated vehicle would not suffer these normal human failings.  Cars could travel much faster, much closer, and be much safer.  Wouldn’t be nice to be able to read this blog while ‘driving’ to work? 

Just think of the benefits to people who are blind – they too could ‘drive’ to work.

Google autonomous car with blind driver

Already three states in the USA have authorised the use of driverless (sometimes called autonomous) vehicles under strict conditions.

Of course, the real problems with allowing driverless cars won’t be the technology – it will be the politics, the legal issues, and the ethical considerations.

Given the way big corporations insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, I fully expect driverless cars to behave differently from what we expect.  When I use a GPS, I expect it to take me to my destination via either the fastest or the shortest route – my choice.  But I can see the computer of the driverless car taking me past a MacDonalds or a KFC – depending who had paid the software producer the most money – rather than by the best route.

And now to the big question: Would you fly in a plane that has no pilot?

The overwhelming answer to this at my talk was ‘NO!’

And that is a puzzle to me.

In commercial flying today, most of the flying is already done by the onboard computers.  It is not uncommon for the cockpit crew to fall asleep on the long hauls across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans because of the boredom of having to watch the plane fly itself. 

In fact, many commercial planes, when appropriately equipped and landing at appropriately equipped airports, can land themselves.  With no human intervention.  And do it much better than a human could.

‘But, what if?’ I hear you say.  ‘What if something goes wrong?”

It’s a valid question, of course.  But the statistics show that by far the greatest proportion of aviation accidents are caused by human error – of which pilot error is the largest slice.  So it is arguable that taking the pilot out of the cockpit would help reduce accidents.

In the late 1970’s, the airlines, after deregulation, started to push hard for reducing cockpit crews in long-haul aircraft from three to two – taking out the flight engineer, leaving the captain and first officer.  The push was purely for financial reasons, but the airlines argued that the technology allowed them to do that.

There was a lot of hot air about this – how it would be a dangerous move to make.  The concerns never materialised.

So it wouldn’t surprise me to see a push to reduce the crew size to one – once again for economic reasons.  So if you get on a flight and you see only one person in a uniform walk into the cockpit, you will know what is happening.  Actually, the captain will probably have an airline-issue dog with him or her.  The role of the dog would be to bite the pilot if he or she touches the controls; and the role of the pilot would be to feed the dog.

A different intermediate step would be to have no crew, but have a group of pilots on the ground, ready to take over the controls (at a distance) should something go wrong.  Everywhere in the world today, drones are being flown this way, so the technology already exists.

Military drone

Drone pilots, thousands of kilometres away from their plane

In the ten years ending in 2012, there was a total of 4,000 commercial airline fatalities worldwide (a few data are missing from this because of reporting problems, but do not change the overall picture).  That means that statistically you would have to fly one flight a day for 11,000 years to be involved in a fatal accident.  These data would probably be even better if there had been no pilots at all!

Aviation accidents: not much room for further improvement

I think the real reason why most people would say they wouldn’t fly on a pilotless plane is because humans are terrestrial beings and feel out of their element in the air.  There is a simmering nervousness about being 35,000 feet up in the air, unable to control anything, knowing that the air is too thin to breathe and remain conscious, and that should something go wrong, it is a long way down.

As for me, I’d rather fly than drive – unless the other cars on the road don’t have drivers.  What about you?

Stan - Thusday


  1. Stan, What a thought-provoking blog! Random thoughts from me:
    The recent fatal crash on the Hudson Valley Line train as it entered the Bronx would not have happened without the driver who "spaced-out" at the controls. That is, of course, if the line had been outfitted with the proper technology--speaking of politics!
    Then there is a particular pilot, a GREAT hero of mine: Captain Sully Sullenberger. See here:
    And last but NOT IN THE LEAST BIT least: My favorite dream flight would be to fly over the African wilderness with you at the controls!

  2. Having just experienced two back-to-back flights on United, I can say that flying without flight attendants is already here.

  3. I've been talking at my wife (isn't that how it's supposed to work???) about auto-autos for several years, usually when driving down the road and frustrated by all the idiot drivers around me. If all cars were auto-driven, average speeds would be higher (no idiots swerving in and out of traffic, causing everyone else to slam on their brakes), fewer stops (why stop at an intersection when the cars can interweave themselves? Pedestrians are on their own...), more leisure time to read, watch videos, have sex on the highway (I can see new 'clubs', those who have had sex on every highway in the state or every interstate in the nation), and of course, greater safety. As long as you don't mind the occasional sticky condom going 'smack' onto your windshield...

  4. This is a good analogy, Stan. Although there are differences between an autopilot and driverless cars: aircrafts don't have to take note of traffic, intersections and pedestrians, which makes driving a car more complex than driving a plane on the air. Driverless cars are going to be more complicated, and will need a lot more testing to be done. As they say, testing is important in things such as this, as the authorities won't allow it unless they are found to be as safe, or at the very least, as responsive as humans behind the wheel.

    Matt Wynan @ Innovative Defense Technologies