In less than five years, Melburnians will be able to book and share a 10-minute trip from the CBD to Melbourne airport courtesy of Uber Air’s flying car fleet.
The ridesharing giant has announced that Melbourne has been selected as the third official pilot city, joining Dallas and Los Angeles as test cities for the Uber Air program.
The prototype — not quite a helicopter or a plane — is set to become a familiar site in Melbourne from next year as the company launches test flights from next year ahead of commercial operations from 2023.
Uber cited the Victorian government’s forward-looking approach and Australia’s “wholehearted” embrace of the ridesharing app as reasons for its choice. Melbourne was chosen over shortlisted cities Paris, Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Tokyo and Sydney after an 18-month selection process.
While it all sounds a little futuristic, Uber’s plans are concrete: the company has announced partnerships with Macquarie, Telstra, Scentre Group and the Melbourne Airport to fast track the infrastructure and aviation network required to run Uber Air.
“The future of transport is coming to Melbourne and we’re ready to make it happen,” Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas said on Wednesday.
Clem Newton-Brown, director of Skyportz — a start-up aimed at establishing landing infrastructure for eVTOLS (vertical takeoff and landing aircraft) — said it was still unclear what the infrastructure requirements will be.
“It is expected that initially existing airports and helipads will be the focus.
“The technology is not what will be what holds it up — regulation, social license and the necessary infrastructure will hold it up.”
Dr Chris De Gruyter, a vice-chancellor’s research fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT, says the big question is what kind of trips Uber Air Melbourne will actually be used for.
“Based on what travel survey data tells us, we might see skyports at key activity centres and employment hubs like the airport, Melbourne CBD and other key precincts like Clayton or Dandenong.
“But Uber Air isn't going to help with managing our urban transport problems. These vehicles are very low capacity — similar to what a car could carry — while there are also questions about if these vehicles will create visual clutter in the sky and how environmentally-friendly they are.
“Another risk is ‘empty running’, where there are no passengers, but the vehicle has to travel to pick people up from another location.”
Scentre Group will lead the infrastructure charge for Uber in Melbourne — lending their Westfield centres to the air mobility market cause.
“The strategic locations of our Westfield centres [are] regarded as integral social infrastructure because of their close proximity to customers, communities and transport hubs,” Scentre chief strategy officer Cynthia Whelan said.
Research and development in the urban air mobility market is fast-moving, with giants like Boeing and Airbus competing alongside start-ups like Munich-based Lilium and Chinese operator eHang.
Uber says Uber Air will help alleviate congestion that it estimates costs Australia $16.5 billion annually, which is forecast to increase to $30 billion by 2030.
“As major cities grow, the heavy reliance on private car ownership will not be sustainable,” Uber Elevate global head Eric Allison said.
“Uber Air holds enormous potential to help reduce road congestion.”
At the very least, Uber’s announcement means Melburnians are a step closer to travelling by drone, says RMIT aerospace engineer Dr Matthew Marino.
“Allowing a computer to fly an aircraft, rather than a human, is nothing new,” Marino said.
“Technology has progressed so much that aerial autonomy is considered safe and reliable, arguably more so than driverless cars.
“The biggest hurdle to drones carrying people is safety. We need to prove to people that this technology can be as safe as helicopters, which regularly fly in our cities.”