Melbourne has been selected by Uber as a pilot city for its flying taxi service Uber Air.
Test flights of the firm's proposed aerial vehicles will begin in the city from 2020 the company announced today, with commercial operations to commence from 2023.
The service — which will also be piloted in Dallas and Los Angeles — will link airports with central city locations.
"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,” said Eric Allison, the global head of Uber Elevate.
When fully realised, the service will allow travellers to take shared VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft between conveniently located 'Skyports'. These Skyports will handle up to 1,000 landings per hour, even within footprints as dense as an acre, Uber said.
Travelling by VTOL will cost the same as an UberX trip over the same distance, the company added.
“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,” Allison told the audience at Uber’s global Elevate Summit in Washington yesterday.
To get the service off the ground, Uber has partnered with Macquarie, Telstra, the owner and operator of Westfield malls, Scentre Group and Melbourne Airport.
The partners "collectively will support the infrastructure and telecommunications needed to create a successful urban aviation network" Uber said.
Inner city Skyports could open at Westfield shopping centres, Scentre Group's chief strategy and business development officer Cynthia Whelan indicated today.
"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,” she said.
It appears the flying taxis will initially still have pilots, with current design efforts for VTOLs featuring a 150 mph cruise speed and capacity for one pilot and four riders. The company is working with aircraft manufacturers Boeing, Bell, EmbraerX, Karem and Pipistrel to develop the VTOL.
Uber — which reported a US$1 billion loss in its first quarterly report as a public company in May — met with Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) late last year to discuss the regulations affecting the service. CASA has not yet approved Uber's proposal.
The regulatory hurdles will be higher is the aircraft become pilotless, explained Dr Matthew Marino from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team at RMIT.
“The biggest hurdle to drones carrying people is safety. 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. But we need to prove to people that this technology can be as safe as helicopters, which regularly fly in our cities,” he said.
Uber did not state whether the service's pilots would be considered employees or contractors.
Other companies including Airbus and Air New Zealand are also working on air taxi services.
Although novel and undoubtedly thrilling to ride, some have questioned the value of flying taxis to cities like Melbourne.
"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,” said Dr Chris De Gruyter from RMIT's Centre for Urban Research.
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