How aviation can guide the future of autonomous driving

By Camil Tahan, Gerasimos Skaltas, and Nabil Katicha


Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology can lead to tremendous safety gains and more efficient transportation. Yet there are considerable barriers to adoption, including communication protocols, infrastructure standards, and liability considerations. These are challenges that few countries can solve independently. Over the past few decades, the civil aviation industry has resolved similar issues, leading to an impeccable safety record and high level of trust among passengers—even as passenger jets approach fully autonomous operation. In that way, aviation lights the path for autonomous vehicles.

The worldwide market for AV technology is growing rapidly. It was worth an estimated $54 billion in 2019 and should expand to $557 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research. Nearly 100 cities worldwide have some form of AV pilot program underway. Automakers are making big bets: Toyota has invested $1 billion in the Toyota Research Institute, and Hyundai has pledged $1.7 billion to AV research and development. Some vehicle manufacturers have forged partnerships with technology companies, such as Daimler’s arrangement with Bosch, and Hyundai’s partnership with Cisco. Technology companies are bringing their expertise to the industry as well, including Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet), Apple, and Uber.

However, technology is just one element of an autonomous transportation network—and likely not the greatest barrier to adoption. Communications standards need to provide a single, universal means by which autonomous vehicles can interact with each other, the road, pedestrians, and remote networks. Infrastructure need to change as well. Lane markings need to be redesigned with different materials and standards to allow AVs to maneuver safely in varied weather and light conditions. Road geometry and signage have to change. Importantly, regulatory frameworks for AVs need revamping as they were originally designed for driver-based vehicles.

These are challenging issues, but they are not new. Indeed, the commercial airline industry already operates mostly through automated systems and technological standards that are set internationally, under well-defined regulatory frameworks that govern the international civil aviation ecosystem.

The underlying rationale for automation is the same for both industries: safety is paramount, with efficiency, reliability, congestion management, and other factors secondary though important. What works for aviation can work for automotive.

In particular, there are three areas in which AV stakeholders can learn from civil aviation:

Civil aviation uses a range of physical and technological infrastructure to maintain high safety standards, including components on the ground, aboard aircraft, and on satellites. Communication and collision-avoidance systems are all multiply redundant. AVs will require a similar suite of redundant tracking and communication systems to allow vehicles to reliably reach their destination. Some technologies will be built into vehicles. Infrastructure will need to include sensors for AV detection, systems for lane guidance, and various levels of control from traffic monitoring systems.

In civil aviation, international authorities set principles and regulations that airlines, aviation manufacturers, and air traffic control entities abide by. There are consistent, agreed-upon standards for interoperability and safety, and the safety aspect encourages consumer demand. For example, accident investigations are centralized at a national level, with established industry standards for record-keeping and data analysis.

The AV industry will ultimately require consistent standards across borders. Consumers will adopt AV technology only if it is safe and seamless in different countries and jurisdictions. In particular, governments will need to coalesce around clear standards in areas such as vehicle testing, insurance liability, and cybersecurity.

Aircraft fly autonomously because of a plethora of back-up systems, including pilots, airline operating control centers, and air traffic control facilities. A network of public and private stakeholders is responsible for operations, monitoring, and maintenance. Similarly, the implementation of AV technology will require input from an ecosystem of public and private stakeholders. These include manufacturers, technology companies, traffic authorities, telecommunication players, data providers, fleet managers, emergency management services, insurers, and cybersecurity firms.

AV technology is ready to take off, but technology alone is not enough. Visionary governments should facilitate its adoption by learning from aviation and crafting the infrastructure and regulations that will deliver the benefits of safer and more efficient transport. Moreover, private stakeholders should rethink their business models to become more relevant and monetize their offering in a very different automotive future.

This article originally appeared in Gulf News, November 2020.

About the authors

Camil Tahan is a partner, Gerasimos Skaltas and Nabil Katicha are managers, with Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network.

Contact us

Camil  Tahan

Camil Tahan

Partner, Strategy& Middle East

Nabil Katicha

Nabil Katicha

Principal, Strategy& Middle East