New research indicates airline passengers are not ready for autonomous cockpits

Would you fly in an airplane with no human pilot? According to a new study in the International Journal of Aerospace Psychology, people are much more willing to fly when a human is in the cockpit rather than an autonomous autopilot system.

“Dr. Stephen Rice, Dr. Scott Winter, and I have been publishing together since 2013 and have been working on various facets of consumer perceptions. We started mainly within aviation, but since then have branched out to other areas of transportation and human factors as well,” said study author Rian Mehta of the Florida Institute of Technology.

“Autonomous cockpits have been a topic of discussion for a while, and even though the technology may be ready, the passenger may not. This is why we have focused so heavily on consumer perceptions research. In this paper we took it a step further and wanted to study the differences in perceptions based on who was in the cockpit.”

“We wanted to see if gender stereotypes were still present and so we manipulated the configuration of the pilots to be either 2 male pilots, 1 male and 1 female pilot, 2 female pilots, or a completely autonomous autopilot,” Mehta explained

“We were interested because these perceptions are fluid and easily influenced. Over the years as more advanced technology becomes mainstream we are seeing a shift in perceptions to be more accepting of these automated systems. We also see that culturally people are becoming more progressive and wanted to see if gender stereotypes were fading away.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed more than 400 individuals from the United States and India using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They found that the configuration of the pilots influenced the individuals’ self-reported willingness to fly in an airplane.

Overall, the participants were least comfortable with a completely autonomous autopilot system involving no human pilots. Americans, compared to their Indian counterparts, were much less willing to fly in the autopilot condition.

“The aviation industry is looking to implement more automation in cockpits. This may not be the removal of both pilots, but the removal one pilot and augmenting the remaining pilot with more automation,” Mehta told PsyPost.

“The industry is looking for the acceptance of the travelling public and so these studies aid in completing that dialog. Through consumer perceptions research such as this, the industry is able to gauge the readiness of the public.”

“The hope is that research such as this becomes more widely known to the public and will therefore spark them to learn more of the facts about the safety and efficiency of automation. This will help in forming educated opinions rather than emotional reactions,” Mehta said.

The researchers also found that Indian men were less willing to fly with female pilots in the cockpit. But Americans and Indian women did not show any significant differences between the two-male, one-male and one-female, and two-female groups.

“Female pilots are as capable,” Mehta said. “Even though negative stereotypes do persist today, they need to be combated with the facts. Only when people are presented with data showing their prejudices are they forced to reevaluate their stance on why they perceive things a certain way.”

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“This study utilized participants from an online source that allows people to complete surveys for compensation. There are arguments for and against such sources and so we never try to disguise that fact about the data,” Mehta explained.

“As new technology becomes available, consumer perceptions research is needed to gauge the public’s reaction to it. When we reach a point where the public is not opposed to something, that signals the industry that it is the right time to implement said item or technology.”

“Replication of this work in different countries can also give a better picture of the global perceptions of a topic. Especially the perceptions of gender. Future studies can determine if the gender stereotypes are fading away or remain persistent. It is the hope that people would become less biases and therefore allow such stereotypes to be things of the past.

“Another caveat that has been addressed in most of these research studies is that these perceptions are predominantly based on emotion. The consumers feel a certain way regarding these topics and that is what is driving their opinions,” Mehta added.

“Aviation research is still very much a growing field. This line of research with this team of authors was started by my mentor Dr. Stephen Rice (second author on this paper). All of these projects have been team efforts of Dr. Stephen Rice, Dr. Scott Winter, and myself.”

The study, “Perceptions of Cockpit Configurations: A Culture and Gender Analysis“, was authored by Rian Mehta, Stephen Rice, Scott Winter, and Morgan Eudy.