Uber has announced that Melbourne will join Dallas and Los Angeles as a pilot city for its air taxi program and says test flights are expected to begin in 2020.
The ride-sharing giant hopes to begin commercial services operating in 2023, although there are a number of significant hurdles to overcome before that can happen.
The aircraft will initially have pilots but Uber’s ultimate goal is to operate autonomous vehicles at some point in the future.
Precedents for what initially will be a new form of charter service exist in urban helicopter services in cities such as New York, although these have tended to be restricted to the wealthy.
Hurdles for Uber include the final design and certification of the new breed of electric aircraft, what qualifications the pilots will need, environmental considerations such as noise (depending on where they fly) and the changes needed to aviation regulations.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority believes that, in principle, the air taxis can be accommodated within the regulatory framework but says work will still be needed to do this.
“There will be lots of safety and regulatory challenges,” CASA spokesman Peter Gibson told AirlineRatings.
“We’re up for the challenge and we’ve had quite a few discussions with Uber already so they understand the safety requirements and we understand where they’re going.”
Gibson said CASA was confident it could deliver on the safety requirements for the new service.
“But what we say to the traveling public is we will make sure that at each and every stage that the safety issues are clearly identified, clearly addressed so that we get to the end of it and first Uber vehicle takes to the sky you can have complete confidence in safety,” he said.
The aim is to open up urban air mobility and help alleviate transportation congestion on the ground.
In the long term, the company says its vision is for safe, quiet electric vehicles transporting tens of thousands of people across cities for the same price as an UberX trip over the same distance.
“Since we entered the market in 2012, Australians have embraced Uber wholeheartedly,” Susan Anderson, the regional general manager for Uber in Australia, New Zealand and North Asia, announced at a summit in the US.
“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 recognized 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. We will see other Australian cities following soon after.”
“The State Government of Victoria, Australia has been highly supportive, and we look forward to partnering with them to progress into this first international trial for Uber Air in Melbourne.”
Uber estimates congestion currently costs Australia $16.5 billion annually and this will increase to around $30 billion by 2030.
“As major cities grow, the heavy reliance on private car ownership will not be sustainable,” said Uber Elevate global head Eric Allison, adding that the air taxi system “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.”
The ride-sharing company also announced partnerships with leading Australian companies, Macquarie, Telstra and Scentre Group, owner and operator of Westfield in Australia and New Zealand.
It said it would work with key existing partners such as Melbourne Airport on the infrastructure and telecommunications needed to create a successful urban aviation network.
“As the gateway to Melbourne for tens of millions of travelers each year, we can see fantastic potential for Uber Air in the future,” said chief of parking & ground access at Melbourne Airport Lorie Argus.
“We look forward to continuing this exciting conversation, and working with government, regulators and our local communities to make this happen.”
Scentre Group said the announcement recognized “the strategic locations of our Westfield centers, which are regarded as integral social infrastructure because of their close proximity to customers, communities and transport hubs”.