Uber Air pilot to take off in Melbourne

Uber Air pilot to take off in Melbourne

After becoming an essential part of the fabric of our roadways, ridesharing and transport service Uber now plans to take to the skies in a bid to reduce traffic on the ground.

Australia will play a key role in the deployment of the Uber Air program, with Melbourne set to join Dallas and Los Angeles as the service's third official pilot city. Other Australian cities are expected to follow suit.

Test flights are due to start from 2020 with plans for commercial operations to begin in 2023.

The company claims the long-term vision for Uber Air is to open up air mobility with safe, quiet electric vehicles transporting tens of thousands of people across cities for the same price as an UberX trip over the same distance.

Susan Anderson, Uber's regional manager for Australia, New Zealand and North Asia, made the announcement at the group's Elevate Summit in Washington DC on 11 June.

"Since we entered the market in 2012, Australians have embraced Uber wholeheartedly," she said.

"Today, over 3.8 million Aussies regularly use Uber as a reliable way to get from A to B, and governments across the country have recognised the important role ridesharing plays in the future of transport for our cities."

"Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology. This, coupled with Melbourne's unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air."

Anderson added the Victorian State Government had been highly supportive, and the company looked forward to partnering with them for the trial.

Congestion is a growing concern for cities around the world, and Australia is not immune congestion currently costs Australia $16.5 billion annually and increasing to around $30 billion by 2030.

Uber Elevate global head Eric Allison said as major cities grew, the current heavy reliance on private car ownership would not be sustainable.

"Uber Air holds enormous potential to help reduce road congestion. For example, the 19 kilometre journey from the CBD to Melbourne airport can take anywhere from 25 minutes to around an hour by car in peak hour but with Uber Air this will take around 10 minutes," Allison said.

"Uber's technology is changing the way people move around their cities from bikes to pooled rides, we are always looking for ways to reduce the need for private car ownership. In the coming years, with Uber Air, we want to make it possible for people to push a button and get a flight.

Speaking at the summit, the Victorian Government's Assistant Treasurer Robin Scott said he was delighted Melbourne had been chosen as the first city outside the United States for Uber Air.

"Victoria is a dynamic, innovative tech state and an economy leading the Asia Pacific region in transformative technologie," Scott said.

Collaboration with industry

Uber also announced partnerships with Macquarie Group (ASX: MQG), Telstra (ASX: TLS) and Scentre Group (ASX: SCG), and will work with key existing partners including Melbourne Airport. Collectively, these stakeholders will support the infrastructure and telecommunications needed to create a successful urban aviation network.

"As the gateway to Melbourne for tens of millions of travellers each year, we can see fantastic potential for Uber Air in the future," said Melbourne Airport's chief of parking & ground access Lorie Argus.

"We look forward to continuing this exciting conversation, and working with government, regulators and our local communities to make this happen."

Macquarie Capital's global head of energy technology Greg Callman said his group was excited to be partnering with Uber Elevate on the development and electrification of the skyports that will support vertical takeoff and landing, as well as determining the best market structures and models for the infrastructure.

"We look forward to leveraging our expertise in infrastructure, charging, and energy, along with innovation driven by Uber and other partners to accelerate the move toward electric air mobility," he said.

Telstra chief executive officer Andrew Penn said the telco was excited to be part of a "truly momentous point in time for Melbourne on the world stage".

"Our network strength, coverage and leadership in 5G, along with our ongoing work on drones and related standards, will support Uber's incredible technology and innovation to develop a service we have all imagined would one day be possible," Penn said.

"We will be working closely with Uber over the next 12 months to assess what network infrastructure, connectivity requirements and other capabilities would be needed to support airspace mobility in urban centres. It is a testament to Telstra's network and technology capability that we are part of this exciting future."

Scentre Group's chief strategy and business development officer Cynthia Whelan said her company's role would be as a preferred infrastructure partner, and along with other companies, government and regulatory agencies it would explore future mobility options for its customers.

"Today's announcement recognises the strategic locations of our Westfield centres, which are regarded as integral social infrastructure because of their close proximity to customers, communities and transport hubs," Whelan said.

"Our partnership with government and business is a significant part of the Uber story in Australia. We will continue to work with communities and governments to ensure that we create an urban aviation rideshare network that is safe, quiet, environmentally conscious and supports multi-modal transport options."

Dr Matthew Marino of RMIT said the news meant Melburnians were one step closer to traveling by drone.

"Technology has progressed so much that aerial autonomy is considered safe and reliable, arguably more so than driverless cars," he said.

"While a driverless car would be faced with obstacles on the road like pedestrians on their mobile phones or other vehicles like trams and buses, aerial autonomous vehicles don't have these obstructions."

However, he said the biggest hurdle to drones carrying people was safety.

"The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has been very progressive trialling drone technology and there are a number of drone trials happening in suburban Australia including Google's Project Wing to deliver food, drinks and medication," he said.

"But we need to prove to people that this technology can be as safe as helicopters, which regularly fly in our cities. More research and development are needed in this area."

Dr Chris De Gruyer, a public transport and urban research expert at RMIT, was more circumspect. He welcomed the initiative but questioned what kind of trips would Uber Air be used for, especially as more than half of trips in metropolitan Melbourne are less than 5km.

"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."

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