Startup Analysis, Transport & Logistics

Flying cars to hit Melbourne as Uber unveils vision for the future of urban transport

Matthew Elmas /

Melburnians could see flying cars overhead within four years, with Uber announcing the city as a testing zone for its new aerial transport play.

The ride-sharing giant today unveiled designs for its highly anticipated Uber Air vehicles, naming Melbourne, Dallas and Los Angeles as pilot cities for its plan to start selling commercial flights by 2023.

The plan has the support of the Victorian and Australian governments, as well as “enthusiasm” from regulator the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which will be responsible for approving the various stages of the trial.

Those hoping for a curbside helicopter service will be disappointed though. While the service will operate through Uber’s app, there will be designated stations, called “skyports”, where the crafts take off and land.

Uber’s Australian regional manager Susan Anderson praised regulators for their “forward-looking approach to ride-sharing and future transport technology” in a statement circulated on Wednesday.

“We will see other Australian cities following soon after,” she said.

The company is calling the concept “aerial ride-sharing” and while many of the specifics — including exactly how the crafts will be piloted — are yet to be finalised, Uber’s vision for the future of urban travel involves a combination of walking, bikes, traditional ride-sharing and air transit.

The future of urban transport?

Under the plan, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles would be based out of strategically placed stations in Melbourne, offering an option for customers looking for longer trips, such as to the airport or across the city.

Eric Allison, the global boss of Uber’s Elevate program, said the 19 kilometre trip from Melbourne Airport to the CBD would take about 10 minutes using the service, about a third of the time cars generally take.

“As major cities grow, the heavy reliance on private car ownership will not be sustainable,” Allison said in a statement circulated on Wednesday.

“We want to make it possible for people to push a button and get a flight.”

Asked for further detail on their plans on Wednesday, an Uber spokesperson said the company envisages the service as a “fast and convenient way” to take longer trips.

“Uber Air flights will be multimodal — that means they’ll operate between fixed Skyports that will be located based on demand in the city, and we’ll coordinate the best way to get you to and from a Skyport (walking, biking, Uber, or transit),” the spokesperson said.

By coordinating its growing number of transport services to offer customers a one-stop-shop for getting from A to B within cities, Uber will be able to keep customers within its ecosystem and away from competitors.

There’s also the potential to use aerial vehicles in the operation of its fast-growing meal business Uber Eats, powered by a suite of proprietary software developed by the company called Elevate Cloud Services.

Airport ease to boost tourism

News of the trial provides an insight into the future of transport in urban areas, which Chris De Gruyter, vice-chancellor’s research fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT, says will boost Melbourne tourism.

“The airport is one of the key types of trips this sort of technology will attract … it’s definitely going to boost Melbourne’s reputation,” he tells SmartCompany.

De Gruyter says the service is unlikely to change the face of urban travel though, noting only 13% of trips in Melbourne are over 20 kilometres long.

“The majority of our population will still be using conventional forms of transport,” he says.

Uber

A digital mock-up of a Skyport. Source: Uber.

Big businesses are already scampering around the ride-sharing giant for a role in the trial, with Telstra, Macquarie and Westfield shopping centres owner Scentre Group already inking deals.

Their publicly stated role thus far is “infrastructure and telecommunications” support, while Westfield said it was keen to “explore future mobility options for customers”.

Basically, Uber will need somewhere to park, take off and land their flying vehicles, whether that be the roof or carpark of a shopping centre or a designated zone at the airport.

Regulator keen, but nothing set in stone

Uber has been in talks with CASA about its plans for about a year, but while the regulator is keen to explore the project, spokesperson Peter Gibson was clear nothing is set in stone.

“We recognise there will be a range of safety and regulatory challenges involved,” Gibson tells SmartCompany.

“This is day one of a project which will run for many years and regulatory and safety approvals will be needed at every stage.

“Not until all of that work has been done can you tick it off and say it’s safe to fly.”

Who’s flying?

Chief among current issues is who, or what, will be flying the vehicles.

Gibson says CASA will need to assess whether prospective pilots fall within the current licensing framework, but says anyone flying one of the vehicles will need to be “properly trained”.

“They’re not quite helicopter pilots, they’re not quite plane pilots, they’re not quite drone pilots,” he says.

Asked about who will be driving the flying cars on Wednesday, an Uber spokesperson said the company is working through a number of possible models.

“As different VTOL [vertical take-off and landing] models are developed, we will have a better sense of which option makes the most sense, but automated technology will certainly play a large role as it currently does in most modern air transportation,” the spokesperson said.

As for the noise, Uber says the electric vehicles will be at least 32 times quieter than helicopters, while on the safety front they’ve been designed with four engines so even if one rotor breaks the vehicles can still land safely.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].