Star Trek and Harry Potter have ruined business travel

Most of us techies agree that optimal travel is teleportation (Star Trek) or apparition (Harry Potter).

The dream is instantaneous point-to-point transport. All business transportation should be evaluated based on how close it comes to approaching this ideal. Because modern travel isn’t instantaneous, our main metrics are productivity — the ability to work while en route — and convenience — how easy is the whole process of getting from one place to the next.

In approaching the teleportation ideal, an airplane’s greatest strength is speed. Air is the fastest option we have. The longer the trip, the greater the advantage for air over other forms of travel. A car’s greatest strengths are simplicity and flexibility. It’s one vehicle from point-to-point, operating on any schedule and any route. Trains offer the greatest productivity but stick to a fixed track. Buses’ greatest strength is cost, but they tend to be a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Optimizing travel requires balancing speed with simplicity and flexibility. It’s toward this magic ideal where the opportunity exists for travel companies to collaborate in building the flexible systems of the future.

Transforming regional travel

“Driverless cars” is the obligatory buzz phrase these days for any discussion of transportation. But we forget that the promise lies in the wholesale transformation of regional travel.

While most of the press around driverless cars has focused on complex urban settings, most of the real-world tests have been on highways. These are settings with similar speeds and limited variables.

When it comes to regional distances of a few hundred miles or less, there are a wealth of competing travel options — cars, planes, buses, trains. But every option has complications: detours, delays, transfers, distractions and wind resistance are as true for ground as for air. Driverless vehicles offer a tremendous opportunity for airlines and ground-based transportation companies to partner with each other, leveraging their historical strengths to improve travel for everyone.

Traveling the Texas Triangle

Over the past year, I’ve logged flights from my home in Dallas to Thailand, Hong Kong, Argentina, Seattle, New York and San Francisco. In that same time, I’ve traveled by car to conferences in Austin, Houston and College Station. This is the “Texas Triangle” — 18 million people in five major cities, all less than 250 miles apart. It’s a region ripe for experimentation and innovation in travel.

The dominant challenge to adoption is in changing public opinion in favor of autonomous vehicles.

There are air routes connecting Texas cities. After all, regional, decentralized Texas flights is how Southwest Airlines started. The inconvenience of flying short distances rarely seems worth it to me; the complexity doesn’t outweigh the speed. As much as I love flying, it involves navigating a tremendous number of transitions: getting to the airport (via ride-sharing, public transit or driving to self-parking), checking bags, navigating security, walking to the gate, waiting at the gate, boarding, waiting for takeoff — the actual flight — taxiing to the gate, debarking, walking to baggage claim, waiting at baggage claim and transport to the final destination (via ride-sharing, public transit or rental car).

For longer flights, these steps represent the minority of total travel time. But for Dallas to Houston — the longest leg of the Texas Triangle — the 45-minute flight is a tiny part of a total travel time of 3-4 hours. It’s also challenging to be productive en route because it takes so much time to negotiate all the transitions of the trip. You simply can’t be highly productive during so many micro moments.

If I make the 240-mile drive from Dallas to Houston, my productivity is limited to phone calls and podcasts. But 230 miles of the trip is on highways. In a car with a viable and safe highway driverless mode, 95 percent of the trip would become fully productive time to use a laptop or augmented reality headset, engage in video conference calls or catch a nap.

Even if I have to manually drive the car within cities, I’d still gain 3-5 hours of productive time on highways, depending on traffic. And if there is an interruption because of a wreck, mechanical failure or weather event, I still have all the advantages of a car — the ability to change routes, stop for a meal or pull off at a rest stop to watch a sunset over the Texas horizon.

Forget about rail

In countries with higher population densities than the U.S., high-speed rail has largely replaced regional passenger flights. For instance, airlines in China have stopped flying routes less than 300 miles when there is a competing high-speed rail. However, the U.S. hasn’t built a similar infrastructure. Texas lacks any high-speed rail (at least for now). China’s example is still relevant as we think about inconvenience thresholds in travel.

High-speed rail is widely idealized as a transportation option — and for good reasons: It tends to be highly convenient, connecting city centers in a way that is fast, safe, affordable and comfortable, with a minimum of overhead time and the benefit of a low-carbon footprint. The ultimate example of this would be a hyperloop, if one ever gets built. However, high-speed rails require significant passenger volume to be viable and — where they don’t already exist — significant time and money to plan and implement.

In contrast, cars that can function autonomously on highways can adapt to any scale and to any region, yielding the productivity benefits of high-speed rail across a far greater range of routes and situations.

Why airlines should be getting in on driverless cars

Airlines understand logistics better than any other segment of the travel industry. As autonomous vehicles proliferate, airlines have the opportunity to bring their experience to a new arena. Airlines could partner with ground transportation companies to create the infrastructure to link autonomous vehicle travel to existing flight routes… or perhaps talk to Tesla about piloting its planned electric transit vehicle.

Here’s a potential playbook:

  • Regional airline routes coexist with autonomous cars. If an airline knows a flight is going to be delayed, it could give customers the option of autonomous transport in lieu of air. This reduces overbooking problems and provides alternatives in the case of weather or mechanical delays.
  • Some regional airline routes may disappear as airlines contract with driverless car companies to transport passengers directly from home to large airports.
  • Airlines might have the option to cancel unprofitable flights without stranding passengers; e.g. if a once-daily regional flight is underbooked on a particular day, an airline could cancel the flight and use ground transportation partners to ensure travelers can still complete their trip.

I can imagine a world where booking travel is a far more flexible and consistent process: My ticket gets me from point to point within a promised time period; it’s up to the travel provider to integrate the pieces necessary for my trip to be on time and seamless. Airlines are among the companies best positioned to manage the logistics to compete in this magical world of integrated travel.

Convenience begets trust

The hardware to make driverless cars a reality is largely in place. The software continuously improves, making the hardware more useful. The dominant challenge to adoption is in changing public opinion in favor of autonomous vehicles. There are plenty of responsible and compelling arguments for and against autonomous cars. Increased safety, reduced costs and environmental consciousness must be balanced against software bugs and cybersecurity threats. But, ultimately, I believe the road to adoption will be paved by a demand for convenience and consistency.

Humanity has an amazing track record of trust. With every innovation of the internet era, we have shown a willingness to give up privacy, personal information and personal security in return for convenience. Similarly, with autonomous vehicles, our concerns will likely fade once we experience the new technology. Google’s driverless car testing supports this idea: “Within about five minutes [behind the wheel], everybody thought the car worked well, and after that, they just trusted it to work,” reported the head of Google’s self-driving car program.

Very soon, from the front seat of our driverless cars, we’ll be able to see the next future of travel: autonomous airplanes. This opens a whole new set of opportunities for companies to collaborate on end-to-end travel. For travelers like you and I, we’ll be one step closer to Star Trek. Beam me up!