Self-driving cars also referred to as autonomous cars have been in the news a lot lately. Now companies like Tesla Motors are aiming to have a self-driving, autonomous car built within the next three years and Google, which has been working to make a driverless car since before 2010, the odds of seeing such vehicles in the near future are realistic. Increases in attempts by large automotive and tech companies could mean more for the future of transportation than a decline in demand for cab drivers. In order to see the full implications of a driverless world, we need to look up, rather than down.
Automation is gradually taking charge of many imperative functions in our daily lives. Years ago there were trained engineers in the cab of a locomotive; today computerized trains are capable of driving themselves, elevators used to carry with them operators to run the device. Now passengers simply press a button indicating what floor they would like to go to without hesitation. Even in the world of commercial flight, technology has thinned the cockpit as well. Unbeknownst to most passengers of today planes used to require a crew of 5 in order to get off the ground, of course today there is only a crew of two. Now many aviation experts feel that any crew at all will one day be unnecessary. "A pilotless airliner is going to come; it's just a question of when," said former CEO of CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines (NYSE:BA), in a talk he gave in August of 2011 at the AIAA Modeling and Simulation Technologies Conference, in Portland, Ore. With UAVs currently being used for everything from the precision applications of pesticides to supplying the front lines (which is done by Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter) it might not be too long before we see UAVs working as cargo planes. Still there are good reasons it is taking the pilot so long to go the way of the elevator man. The primary reasons are that current UAVs are unable to "sense and avoid" and public perception of unmanned planes is fairly poor.
Sense and avoid problem: Today UAV's are not capable of sensing and avoiding other aircraft autonomously. In order to have aircraft truly fly themselves they would need a human equivalent sense and avoid system. The FAA defines such a system as being able to reliably detect and avoid intruding aircraft within a 3 mile radius with a field of regard of 270 x 30 degrees but expects to formulate a more rigid definition by 2016 that will permit unmanned aircraft systems to interoperate with manned aircraft. Unfortunately, work on the most promising sense and avoid system for the Triton (A UAV being manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE:NOC)) was brought to a halt after a bipartisan letter sent to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on 9/17/13 argued that the Navy should reexamine its approach citing shared interest in the UCLASS. The UCLASS is an Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) air vehicle concept by Lockheed Martin which integrates already proven technologies from F-35C, RQ-170 Sentinel and other operational systems. Both companies continue to work on the creation of a viable sense and avoid system. Late June of last year Lockheed Martin published a patent for a trajectory based sense and avoid system for use in aircraft and Northrop Grumman hopes to proceed with the development of the Triton for the U.S. Navy.
Until a functioning sense and avoid system can be developed, commercial airliners will remain in need of a flight crew. Even a 1% margin of error would be intolerable for commercial jets and cargo planes. However, even the Triton or UCLASS's level of autonomy would be welcome in an airliner as a final way of saving it if the pilot and copilot were killed or incapacitated.
Public perception of unmanned planes: The general consensus towards futuristic technology is most often a positive outlook. This is not the case with unmanned aircraft. If you were to ask a random group of people if they would like to board a plane run by software few will answer yes. The mind suddenly jumps to all those times a home computer crashed or a TV channel that experienced "technical difficulties". However, if you ask that same group if they would do so, but for the price of $80 dollars and more will answer yes. This shows that public perception is not set in stone, it changes all the time. Take as another example, artificial insemination. Back in the 1920's when the first sperm back was developed by the University of Iowa Medical School, artificial insemination was view by many as strange or even immoral. Yet today AI is viewed as a perfectly acceptable option for people all across America. Due to the advancement of drone technology and other developments in automation people grow more used to the idea of a machine running itself. Modern self-operating trains, freightliners and hopefully in a few years cars are helping individuals warm up to the idea of setting everything on autopilot.
Conclusion: In reality self-flying planes are still more than a decade away. Never the less, technological developments in the area are worth keeping an eye on. As UAVs become a more common sight the technology seems to be tantalizingly close and according to tech companies like Tesla and Google the unmanned car is on the horizon. The development of sense and avoid systems may still be in its infancy, but when that first driverless care hits the road it will only make things easier for an existing airline or a new, innovative company to take that first big step.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.