Skift Take

Autonomy will have implications for short haul air travel. The question is when.

On a panel in Austin at SXSW last year, I was joined by Stanford University’s Reilly Brennan, who runs their automotive program, Revs, as well as Seleta Reynolds of the Los Angeles department of transportation to talk about autonomous vehicles and their implications for urban planning. 

One thread that was teased out but not explored in depth as we focused on cities, is what autonomy will mean for short-haul business travel. What does a world look like where, instead of going to the airport two hours early, taking hour flight, and then a commute into a city center, one just gets in a vehicle and works — or sleeps — en route to the destination?

Sven Schuwirth, vice president of brand strategy for Audi, recently posited to Dezeen that business travelers will avoid taking domestic flights to meetings and will skip city center hotels. He sees this as being a medium-term development, about 20 years out, but one that will have significant implications for the hospitality industry.

User experience (UX) researcher Andrew Cave breaks down a hypothetical scenario: one of the busiest short-haul corridors in the world: The Melbourne to Sydney airline commute. On paper, it seems like a no brainer to get on the plane. But Cave breaks down the times associated with taking a flight, and suggests that by eliminating the steps and friction points of 1.) getting to the airport, 2.) waiting pre-flight, 3.) the flight time, 4.) arrival, and 5.) commute from airport the idea of getting into a vehicle at point A, and arriving directly at point B could be indeed more pleasurable. Also, the estimated drive time of eight hours is at current speed rules, which could very well change in the future.

One key factor here is the actual design. In the future, an autonomous vehicle that is geared toward work and relaxation won’t look anything like the hands-on cars we drive now. Rather, it may approximate something like a business or first class cabin on an airline. The ability to lie flat, tuck in and catch a good six hours of sleep. Also, media companies should surely be salivating. When people don’t have to focus on driving, this represents a tremendous amount of “found” time for music, movie and other consumption.

Also, if people do ditch that 5:30 am flight to Chicago and opt to sleep overnight on the road, what does the modern day city arrivals lounge look like, where people arrive, get their suit pressed, take a shower and have a breakfast before heading off into the day? Something not unlike what exists now when you arrive at Heathrow on the red-eye. Will these experiences be brought to us by a luxury car manufacturer? Another brand? It might be something completely different than a city center hotel, and maybe hospitality brands need to invent it from the ground up.

We have a few years to go before autonomous vehicles are at full capacity, but we’re getting close. At the same time, an unusual thing happened in parallel: the rise of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. It is rare to have two things happen at the same time, and so there is a big opportunity in technology to re-frame what the business commute looks like and ideally make it a bit more pleasurable. Maybe an Uber sleeper service isn’t so far off.


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Tags: self-driving cars

Photo credit: Uber employees test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car, in Pittsburgh. Jared Wickerham / Associated Press

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