When experts want to illustrate the potential safety of self-driving cars, they point to the remarkable safety record of modern aircraft, and rightly so. Globally, only one fatal accident occurs for every 3 million large commercial passenger flights (down by a factor of 16 since the 1970s). Last year, US airlines saw their first fatality since 2009.
But the pilots shouldn’t get all the credit. Commercial aircraft are only in the hands of a human for about three to six minutes of each flight—mostly during takeoff and landing. The rest of the time automated systems are in charge. For at least a decade, technology has existed for commercial aircraft to fly with little to no human assistance. The reason they don’t is more a matter of regulation—and human psychology—than technology itself.