Autonomous RVs Will Disrupt the Airline Business

Posted in: Business Insights

As a Director here at Pythian, and the host of the Datascape podcast, technology and business are two topics that are always on my mind.

Currently, in the business world, there’s a lot of talk about self-driving transport trucks and how they will disrupt the transportation industry and potentially remove a lot of middle class jobs. As I started thinking about these things, I thought, “well, why can’t there also be self-driving, fully loaded Recreational Vehicles (RV’s) too?” These self-driving RV’s would serve business people who travel for work.

A few Google searches later, followed by a conversation with my father, (who’s a former RVer), confirmed these types of changes are coming—and soon.

Think about the ripple effect of having self-driving RV’s for business travel will cause. How will this disrupt the airline industry? And maybe even what’s left of the train industry?

I am a frequent business traveler. On a regular basis, I fly to visit current and potential customers who are within a 6-20 hour drive from me. Let’s look at how long even a short hop flight actually takes, what’s involved, and also the quality of that experience.

When flying, you need to be at the airport a few hours early to account for time spent getting there, waiting in lines, customs, and security. You then wait some more, drink some terrible coffee, and maybe eat an overpriced meal.  Finally, you get on your flight.

After a few hours, you  impatiently deplane and then grab a cab to a hotel or to your meeting. Within this time, you probably need to eat again.

This is a long, frustrating, and expensive process. Personally, I don’t work well in airports or on planes, because I’m just not comfortable or able to concentrate with the hustle and bustle around me. There are also security concerns with working in a remote place, like on an airplane or in an airport, because I can’t connect to anything containing sensitive information. Because of these things, I often come in the night before to ensure that I start the next day fresh.

Now let’s consider what would happen if we could take an autonomous RV, one that was perhaps operated by maybe Uber or Lyft.

Book your RV online or through your smart phone. The RV shows up on time, stocked with food, water, is climate controlled and remembers that you like it at 72F.  It also comes loaded with secure Internet services. There’s also a height adjustable desk, TV, sleeping quarters, and a full bathroom.

The RV picks you up, you start your work day and you productively, and comfortably work throughout the day. Traveling with a business partner? Maybe his or her self-driving RV meets up with you along the way and you co-work in that space.

You prep, possibly sleep, eat, and shower in your RV and then maybe 8-12 hours later, you arrive at your meeting fresh and ready. Your meeting takes place and then you head home.

Need to spend the night? Special tower parking garages will be built. Your RV will drive up, check itself in, and will be lifted to the appropriate floor/parking space and park itself. At which time you can go for a walk, swim, and do anything you’d normally do at a hotel.

On the way home, you celebrate by selecting a few points of interest along the way, arriving (again) refreshed and ready to join your family or friends. In fact, maybe on this trip, your partner joins you and helps you rehearse your points for the meeting with the client.

Certainly, there are costs involved in all of this, but when you compare lost productivity, the drain and stress from travel, missed/late flights, cost of flights, hotels, per diems, and the overall “airline experience,” it’s easy to see how this could become a very popular option vs. short-hop flights.

Taking it a step further, speed limits are where they are for various reasons and safety is one of them. As the technology develops, and if humans are removed from driving (or perhaps not allowed on Interstate/Trans Canada highways), it may be feasible to significantly raise the speed limit which will compound this further.

I do not think this is very far off. My prediction is 15 years, max.

We’ll certainly still need air travel but demand will be reduced, and if I managed an airline, I’d be taking a serious look at enhancing the passenger experience to minimize disruption.

What do you think? If this service was available to you, would you use it?

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About the Author

Director of Consulting

Chris Presley loves order—making him a premier Microsoft SQL Server expert. Not only has he programmed and administered SQL Server, but he has also shared his expertise and passion with budding DBAs as SQL Server instructor at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario. Drawing on his strong disaster-recovery skills, he monitors production environments to swiftly detect and resolve problems before they arise. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Chris likes tackling the biggest database problems and putting out the toughest fires—and hitting the road on his motorcycle.

9 Comments. Leave new

Glen Stromquist
June 13, 2017 11:33 am

My opinion is that this is further than 15 years away, quite a bit further in fact.

Airliners are capable of fully autonomous flight, but don’t do so, because the traveling public would/will not trust the safety factor. The public will be even more wary of autonomous transport trucks, given the substantially greater number of hazards related to road travel compared to air travel.

Anytime I hear someone talk about autonomous transport trucks wheeling about the country, I always ask them this question: “Have you ever driven from the prairies to the coast any time between October and May?”

My $.02 (CAD)

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Benjamin Stanley
June 13, 2017 7:27 pm

Once autonomous cars become ubiquitous, that fear will dissipate quickly.

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This is brilliant, i have thought about autonomous cars making long distance travel easier since you can now sleep

But the idea that people might like that convenience in a larger vehicle with a bed/shower/TV seems so obvious. It’s going to take recreational travelers to establish these market though, business won’t want to start paying for this expense until it can be proven cost effective.

Would the employees have designated Business RV’s like their current business cars or would there be autonomous RV rentals like a Hertz or Nationwide?

What could this do to the hotel industry, maybe they just start charging for parking spots?

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Fun to think about, but I’m not convinced of your scenario.

– “Arrive at the airport a few hours early”
Sorry, but for short business trips with no checked bags, airlines will recommend 60-90 minutes early.

– “6-20 hour drive”
This means you’ve gone from potentially flying there and back in 1 day to a 3 day road trip. No thanks. I’d rather be home in the comfort of my bed and with my family.

– “The RV shows up on time, stocked with food and water, climate controlled…”
These are not valid distinctions from the airport experience. Climate controlled? Is there no water/food where you fly? Do you think the food provided in a self-driving RV is going to be any better than what you get when flying?

The luxury you’re imagining in this new form of travel will not be any less expensive than the equivalent luxury air travel experience.

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Would think the food would certainly be better!!! Time wise, not at todays speeds, but many things are being looked at that could make this a viable alternate way of travel. Take a vacation / work trip that could include family members.

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> Would think the food would certainly be better!!!

Please explain. How would the economic forces that dictate the current quality of food for air travel be different for RV travel? And how does the cost scale?

> Take a vacation / work trip that could include family members.

With work trips usually occurring mid-week, I find this far-fetched. Business trip extensions for leisure are going to happen over a weekend and no one’s spouse is going to want to sit in an RV for 6-20 hours while the other one works.

You’re imagining some RV utopia that just won’t pan out in reality.

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The economic forces are pretty obvious. Let’s say a sick, tricked-out RV costs $75,000/unit mass produced, and has a 5-year life. And let’s say that 6 days a week it is utilized, generating revenue of, say, $100/day. Over 5 years, one single unit would generate a gross profit of $81,000, which is gargantuan compared to gross margins on a unit today. On an electric platform, you’d reduce maintenance costs by 90%. The reality is, there would be so much potential profit that one of two things will occur with competition–prices would get reduced or services (i.e. food quality) would vastly improve relative to the price. The autonomous car industry could literally generate trillions of dollars in annual revenues at paltry variable costs. It’s insane.

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Sumontro Sinha
June 13, 2017 7:16 pm

Yes, I think this would be a great way of traveling if I was poor or broke, replacing bus travel if the RV is electric. Otherwise, the gas cost would make the trip a LOT more expensive than simply flying, because RV’s generally have atrocious gas mileage.

But for business travel, absolutely not. Speed is paramount, especially if I have to make multiple sales calls or business pitches in multiple locations. Air travel can let me be in person across five states and still be back in time to tuck my kids for bedtime. If anything, I want to fly faster. I would prefer supersonic airliners to more comfortable slow travel.

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Sumontro nailed it. No one that travels for work is asking for longer travel times.

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