Driverless Cars and Airplanes:
Why are they treated so differently?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2017


These days there are dozens and dozens of news articles on how the march to driverless cars is progressing. People love reading about the progress and they can't wait for driverless cars to become widespread all over our nation's roads.

But conversely, how much do we hear about driverless commercial airliners? We hear... crickets chirping.

Why the difference? Why are people so excited about driverless cars, but hardly interested at all in driverless commercial air travel?

Why we love driverless cars

Cars are a form of personal expression. Once people get prosperous enough to own a car, and choose to do so, they become quite proud of this possession. In addition, learning to drive is an important rite of passage in those cultures that have a lot of car owning.

The result is that thinking about cars in prosperous societies is something that happens a lot and is taken for granted. Part of this thinking is the thinking about control -- when we own a car we control it.

The evolution of being interested in driverless cars is an easy extension of this thinking. Those people who drive cars regularly in urban environments are well acquainted with the frustrations of traffic jams and finding parking spaces, so something that will relieve these hassles is a well-understood blessing.

This car owning environment with a lot of personal expression involved is why driverless cars are of so much interest to people.

Why we hardly think about driverless airplanes

Air travel, conversely, is dominated by a completely different mind set. The typical air traveler doesn't fly an airplane, doesn't own one, and doesn't think of the plane as "their's" in any way. Just as important, many air travelers are fearful when they are flying -- they are being brave when they walk through that tunnel into the plane and stow their carry-ons in the overhead bins. It turns out this being brave feeling is important.

The result of this fearfulness is supporting a lot of ritual -- air travel is dominated by rituals and ritual thinking. This makes it quite different from auto travel. This is why we have waiting in TSA lines as a beginning to our flying experience, and we have inserting a key and twisting it as a beginning to our driving experience -- quite different.

One of the interesting consequences of air travel being ritual-dominated is that people give little thought to changing the activity. There is no constant push to improve the flying experience the way there is with the driving experience. Another example of an activity with slow changing rituals is religion.

The surprise result of this is the slow changing throughout the commercial air travel experience -- airport and air traffic control procedures date back to the 1970's.


The big difference between driverless cars and driverless airplanes is due to the difference in the driving experience and the commercial air travel experience. Driving is very much a form of personal expression and as a result people love it when the experience improves. Air travel, conversely, is an experience dominated by rituals. Rituals don't need to change to satisfy those experiencing them.

The result is that the air travel experience changes very slowly compared to the driving experience. And this slow change will continue as long as air travel is a ritual-dominated experience.

This means we shouldn't expect driverless commercial air travel any time soon. It will come much more quickly to air freight (delivery drones) and general aviation situations than it will to the commercial passenger air travel experience.



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