Autonomous cars? How about airliners?

091316blog sullenberger

Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger and 1st Officer Jeffrey Skiles go through their pre-flight routine. 


Imagine if US Airways Flight 1549 out of New York – operating without a pilot -- had hit the same flock of birds, landed itself on the Hudson River, and saved the lives of 153 passengers and flight attendants.

Well, there would be no movie called “Sully” playing in theaters right now.

Pilotless airliners? Far-fetched, you say. Not so, according to Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s magazine Aerospace, who tells the BBC:  

“So with pilots relying on autopilots for 95% of today's flights, the argument goes, why not make the final 5% – take-off and landing – automated?” says Robinson. “Computers fly ultra-precise, repeatable trajectories, do not fly drunk, do not get tired, do not get distracted and so the thinking goes could be safer than human pilots in the future.”

He says that in a debate at the society earlier this year, with pilots, engineers, scientists and airline representatives debating autonomous planes, the motion ‘there will be no need for pilots in 40 years’ was carried by approximately 60 votes to 40.

“No need” may be the key phrase there. I can believe that in 40 years the technology will be practical and scalable enough to make autonomous airliners a reality. And as with driverless cars, I have no trouble believing that pilotless airliners represent a safety improvement.

But I don’t believe enough people would fly in them to make such aircraft anything but an extremely expensive amusement ride.

Driverless automobiles are going to be a tough enough sell, what with still-unresolved questions surrounding liability, reliability, security, and – most important of all – human nature.

So you’re going to heard hundreds of people onto an airplane with nothing but software at the controls? That will be orders of magnitude more difficult to pull off. Call us crazy, but the vast majority of us want to know that there’s a Sully up front ready to do something when the inevitable unexpected event occurs.

Autonomous airliners are not happening in 40 years. One hundred? Two hundred? Well, everything happens eventually.

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