Today’s trinity of travel providers are airlines, hotels and the rental car industry. But a wave is gathering strength that will crash down upon each of them in the next five years: the rise of autonomous vehicles. All three travel industries should survive, but each will have to change.
(Full disclosure: I own stock in some companies relevant to this story, including Southwest Airlines, Hertz, Ford and Hilton Hotels.)
Car Rentals: The car rental industry has already been massively disrupted by the rise of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. The ride-share companies will be among the pioneers offering autonomous driver pickups at airports, hotels, and indeed, wherever an autonomous car can be programmed to go. If Uber will ‘leave the driving to us,” why rent a car?
Keenly aware of the threat, rental car companies like Hertz are starting to work with companies like Apple as well as rideshare providers. In a similar vein, Alphabet’s self-driving Waymo unit announced it will be using Avis to manage its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
Airlines: Unless you enjoy TSA pat-downs, if you have an autonomous car, why would you fly to an airport 400 miles or less away? In 2015, Audi vice president of brand strategy and digital business Sven Schuwirth went so far as to predict the end of domestic flights with the coming of autonomous cars that can morph between driving and sleeping mode.
For example, I live in Los Angeles. If I want to visit my son in San Francisco, it’s an eight-hour drive, versus about an hour for the flight. But add to that hour flight almost an hour to get to the airport, an hour to get through security and onto the plane, the flight itself, and another hour to get from SFO or Oakland to SF. With an autonomous car, I could skip the four-hour flight marathon, leave at 11PM and arrive at 7AM after sleeping safely in my car.