Mark McSpadden is the Director of Sabre Labs, the internal innovation incubator that explores new and emerging technology and trends in travel. 

Regional travel is a significant opportunity for driverless cars. Autonomous vehicles are not only useful in urban settings but also could have an enormous impact on regional travel.

Mark McSpadden explored this concept in a recent article in TechCrunch called “Star Trek and Harry Potter have ruined business travel.” While this future is not quite here, the impact of autonomous technologies on travel will be significant.

The following Q&A with Mark explores some of these questions raised in his provocative article.

Your article discusses one of the areas not often discussed with driverless cars: regional travel. Why don’t we talk more about this?

It’s easy for everyone to imagine a car that drives them to work everyday. We all dream about it during the daily commute. It’s true: more people commute via car than fly daily. This is why it makes sense there is a fascination with the Urban Autonomous Vehicle. We spend time in traffic within our daily urban lives, so that’s the area we focus on.

But there is a power adjacency in how these vehicles will impact regional travel. For those of us that experience that kind of travel, it has the power to be just as transformative. For example, those who regularly take regional commuter jets to either connect to a larger network or to commute to regional cities for work.

For business travelers, the idea of having regional travel handled without their input is appealing. What impact does this mind shift have on shorter distances of regional travel?

Today, there is a major “productivity tax” on regional travel that can extend well past time of travel. For air travel, that includes lost time and productivity in security lines, boarding lines, and taxi lines. And of course, that’s assuming that there are no delays or disruptions! Or traffic jams to and from the airport.

Once all these other activities are included, air travel can often take just as long (or longer) than what a drive could take. For a human driver, it’s time and more importantly, alertness and attention on the road. It’s taxing to have to drive that whole way, so flying appeals more to the traveler.

Fully autonomous (level 4) vehicles combine the increased flexibility of ground transportation with the “in travel” productivity of flying. It’s the difference in having the 3 hour trip from Dallas to Austin be 90% productive as opposed to something closer to 30% or less in a current car or in the air. Autonomous regional travel could unlock a massive amount of productivity.

How might airlines expand their businesses using driverless cars?

A fleet of driverless cars shares many characteristics with a fleet of airplanes. They have origins, destinations, travel time, weather and maintenance considerations, etc. Airplanes and cars are transportation machines.

Airlines already have deep expertise managing all these aspects to get people and things from point A to point B. This expertise, combined with tools and technologies, may prove to just the thing needed to make regional driverless car travel a legitimate option.

For car rental companies and other ground transportation companies, what are the opportunities around driverless cars?

For rental car companies, there are many of the same opportunities as airlines. Car rental companies rent assets to drivers.

But they are actually deeper into managing road vehicles, their unique maintenance challenges and the diversity of a ground fleet (different cars, sizes, etc.). They also have a better understanding of the resale market – or what to do with cars once they have are too old to be rented to travelers.

Moving away from just regional transportation, what are some other uses of driverless cars in travel? Could we realistically expect to see a tarmac free of humans thanks to autonomous support vehicles?

When you expand it out to autonomous operations, there is the potential for a more automated tarmac. This would mean things like self-driving carts moving luggage from place to place. Or autonomous transporting and loading of catering Or pushing back planes.

Japan’s Haneda airport has already pilot a program using robots to move items within the airport itself. This is only the beginning of how autonomous vehicles can enhance efficiency across the transportation infrastructure.

Drones are now extremely popular across the world. Amazon will even soon begin making deliveries by drone. The next leap is an autonomous plane. How might the pursuit of crew-less planes play out in aviation?

It’s definitely believable. Just check out this teaser article of Google’s commercial flight already. They have worked on this so-called Autonomous Commuter Express, delivering the first test flight at a cost of $150 million. While the article was a joke, it will be interesting to see what the future might look like!

The reality is that we must reach level 4 autonomy in ground vehicles before we can take the idea of flying cars seriously. We already have too many human-induced accidents today…and that’s driving in only 2 dimensions. So to make the leap to 3D, we have to have help from our new computer friends. And there’s plenty to do on the ground before we tackle the air.

Read more about this interesting topic in Mark’s article on TechCrunch, “Star Trek and Harry Potter have ruined business travel.”