Bus to flying taxi, Uber wants to facilitate every step of your trip

Uber has had a busy week at the CES gadget show in Las Vegas. The company shared a stage with Hyundai announcing a partnership to build “air taxis” it hopes to begin operating as soon as 2023. Melbourne is one of the cities Uber is targeting as a launch market. The company also announced new public transport options within the Uber app, and plans to bring Uber Jump — its e-bike sharing service — to Australia early this year.

But while the promise of flying cars generated the most buzz, it was the change in attitude from Uber executives that might have been the biggest surprise.

Uber expects to offer commercial flying taxis in Melbourne by 2023.

Uber expects to offer commercial flying taxis in Melbourne by 2023.

Under Travis Kalanick, Uber pioneered the disruptor’s playbook of “move into a city and ask permission later”, which enabled the company to expand at a phenomenal rate around the world. The company seems to have matured under Dara Khosrowshahi, and its leaders now speak of collaboration, “engaging stakeholders”, and following pesky local laws and regulations.

Until this week, I’d considered Uber Elevate little more than a publicity stunt. The company’s aggressive 2023 deadline for its flying taxi service still seems unrealistic, but Elevate head Eric Allison makes a convincing pitch. At CES he spoke about the company’s close work with regulators around the world, and why Melbourne was chosen as a launch city; the CBD to airport route Uber hopes to launch with Elevate can funnel passengers into one of the busiest airline routes on the planet. Test flights are planned for this year, and Elevate is scheduled to launch in US cities Los Angeles and Dallas as well as Melbourne.

Allison also mentioned the current test of UberCopter in New York, and what it was teaching the company about multimodal travel; allowing users to seamlessly pool together at a drop off point in Lower Manhattan, before sharing a flight to JFK. But helicopters are expensive — “they just don’t scale well” — hence the partnership with Hyundai and others for self-flying electric drones.

For when you don’t need to fly, Uber is also launching an electric bike share program in Australia in the next few months. Uber Australia’s Lucas Groeneveld was not able to specify the launch cities until agreements are in place for the service — called Jump — but he assured me that “there is a ship full of bikes on the way to Australia”.

Uber Jump is an on-demand dockless e-bike sharing service launching in Australia this year.

Uber Jump is an on-demand dockless e-bike sharing service launching in Australia this year.

Uber is actively speaking to all levels of government in Australia to ensure Uber Jump does not suffer the same fate of previous dockless bike sharing services, which have been banned in some local council areas.

Groeneveld believes the technology built into Uber’s e-bikes will help them have a smoother entry than previous dockless bikes, noting Uber can whitelist safe drop-off zones and slow down riders in congested areas.

The bikes are a fun ride, as all ebikes are, so I hope Australians don’t throw them up trees or into the Yarra. Groeneveld is confident they wont, saying the purpose-built bikes have been designed to be as durable and secure as possible.

“They’re very heavy and expensive, so it’s in our best interest to make sure that these things are in the right locations being used in the right way.”

Possibly the most mundane announcement from CES could become the most useful. Uber is now bringing traditional public transport — that is buses and trains — into its app. It’s a low key start, with just transit information in most markets, but the company plans to eventually add payments to each city. Boston and Las Vegas are the first two cities to include public transport payment with Uber credit.

The potential here is for Uber to make proprietary transit cards irrelevant, so you could travel around both Sydney and Melbourne without a separate Opal and Myki Card, just by using your Uber account.

Head of Uber Transit David Reich conceded this may eat into the company’s traditional business, but he sees Transit as a way of expanding that multimodal idea of transportation. He imagines users switching between transport modes for different legs of a journey from car to train to ebike, all within one app.

“I have been at Uber for about three and a half years, which makes me a relative veteran at the company. I think that the company and the employees are just really excited about the direction we’re heading in, and the direction that our CEO is going, in terms of really partnering and collaborating with cities.” Reich said.

“I’m talking with the hundreds of transit agencies all over the world and I think what they’ve been pleasantly surprised by is that we’re not going in there with an agenda, we’re going there to listen and to learn and think about how we could work together to make cities better. We know that for cities to thrive, public transportation has to thrive.”

The author travelled to Las Vegas courtesy of Uber.