Within five years, Melburnians or Sydneysiders could look out of their office windows and see flying ride-sharing vehicles transporting workers between the central business district and regional centres or airports, because Uber has entered discussions with local and federal governments.
The company first indicated Melbourne and Sydney as possible trial locations for its UberAIR service last year and last week Uber’s global head of aviation, Eric Allison, was in the country meeting with politicians, policymakers and Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) representatives.
Mr Allison told The Australian Financial Review the Victorian government was campaigning hard to be the city of choice.
“We want to go to a place where there is a demand for it and that has the need for it. [The city] has to have enough population density, but also a large geographic area so you end up with … development patterns that lead to congestion,” he said.
“It also needs to have a strong ground-based [Uber] business… and we also look at the weather, the local regulatory environment in terms of skyport permissions, what the electricity grid looks like, local real estate partners and then at the national level the aviation regulatory environment.”
Before either state could proceed with UberAIR trials, Uber will need to be able to meet federal regulations. But federal Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Development Michael McCormack indicated the government was willing to work with Uber.
“I support innovative aviation ideas such as the one proposed by UberAIR,” he said.
“CASA is considered among world leaders in drone regulations and has been assisting with other drone trials such as the one with Google X’s Project Wing trial in Canberra.
“It is essential these trials are controlled and conducted safely, with local communities consulted throughout the process.”
The flying vehicle initiative stems from a white paper Uber released almost two years ago, outlining its vision for urban, on-demand, electric air transport vehicles that take off and land vertically.
It has partnered with Bell Helicopters, Aurora Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, and Mooney to build the vehicles and the necessary infrastructure to support and power them and each company is working on a different design.
The first UberAIR demonstration flights could occur as early as late next year in Dallas and Texas.
The company expects to begin offering commercial flights in 2023 at the same price as Uber Black, before lowering this to be in line with Uber X fares within two years.
At first the vehicles, which are being developed to eventually be autonomous, will be manned by pilots.
Mr Allison said this would allow regulators to become more comfortable with the flying vehicles and let it come to market quicker than if it tried to roll out self-flying versions from the outset.
“We’re trying to be very pragmatic even though this is very futuristic … in order to bring it to life as soon as possible,” he said.
“One of the things that I’ve emphasised with the team is that I don’t want there to need to be any matching steps in terms of bringing this product to market.
“We’re trying to work within the existing set of aviation regulations and not require changes of rules because we think the fastest way to get to market is to work within the existing legislation and for any future rule changes to be driven by the work that we’re actually doing on the ground.”
Commute times cut
With UberAIR, commuters could travel from Melbourne airport to the CBD in only five minutes and a trip to Geelong would take only 14 minutes.
Uber’s business has been growing strongly in this country and the Australian division of the ride-sharing giant generated a profit in the 2017 calendar year. Documents filed with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission show it posted a gross profit of $127.3 million on revenue of $151.6 million.
At the same time, losses have continued to balloon at its parent company, in a large part due to its substantial research and development expenses, as it invests in both UberAIR and self-driving cars.
But Mr Allison was confident that even if losses continue to increase, the investment in R&D would not reduce.
“We have to be thinking about the future as well as thinking about the present,” he said. “One of Uber’s values is we have to place big world bets.
“We have to be thinking five to 10 years down the road, because we view ourselves as a long-term entity and we have to be placing those bets on future innovations because the future is going to come faster than you think and we want to be there before other people get there.”