Uber Air: Our obsession with flying cars just got real

Uber has announced that Melbourne will be the only pilot city outside the US (where there are two sites) to trial the Uber Air service.

The thought of a Jetson-like form of travel where we can fly around our cities, to an extent of 100km, for the cost of a current Uber X service, is pretty exciting and has huge transformational potential for our transport network.

As our roads get more congested, it appears the only way is up to ensure that people can get from home to work to leisure activities quickly and relatively cheaply.

Imagine what this service could do for commuting between the cities in south east Queensland?

Once you throw in ride sharing (the drone-like vehicles can take 4 passengers), and factor in petrol, vehicle wear and tear costs, and city parking, the idea of commuting between the Gold Coast and Brisbane via the air looks appealing.

With every utopian dream, however, comes the reality of implementing the vision. Between now and 2023, which is when Uber predicts flights will be commercial, there are some pretty big factors  to consider.

  1. Citizen privacy

There has been considerable concern within the community regarding drones flying over private property and potentially photographing people as they go about their daily lives within the confines of their homes and gardens. Across all aspects of this digital and social world, we are seeing an increasing focus on the right to privacy and the ethical considerations of being seen to be invading people’s personal lives.

Uber Air will have to take these considerations into account. Will their flight paths be contained to being over our roads and highways rather than private property? And will people perceive this as adequate protection against voyeuristic “spying” from the air?

  1. Access to affordable transport for all

There has been criticism globally of the gulf between the haves and the have nots. While Uber Air is reported to be as cheap as an Uber service, this still puts it outside the capacity of some members of our community to afford. Will we see a future where the privileged in society can enjoy shorter trip times, get them home to their families faster, whereas the not-so-well-off have to slog it out on average public transport? Then there is the issue of whether people with a disability will be able to use the drone-vehicles.

The clear message here to Governments is that we need to invest much more into our public transport network, and start to seriously consider how much we should be spending on our roads.

  1. Breaching the change barrier

Uber Air is exciting but it also has the potential to cause significant concern and fear in our communities, not just in relation to privacy and accessibility. Questions will be raised around safety, technology failure, noise and air pollution. Given how much we are battling our road toll, how much worse could a mid-air collision be? Residents may not be as enthusiastic about air travel if it comes with burning wreckage, intolerable noise levels or unattractive visual amenity.

In addition to engaging with regulators concerning aviation safety, Uber Air, along with all levels of Government, will need to start engaging communities about the realities of air travel. There will be significant conversations that will need to occur with communities, and significant issues to resolve, as we transfer to a new era of transport modality.

At the moment, Uber Air still seems like a pipe dream, but 2023 is not far away. While we have enthusiastically embraced the idea of flying cars through pop culture from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Back to the Future and the Jetsons, the reality is different. Strong engagement and risk management is required now to ensure that everyone is ready to embrace change.