I​t's nearing 5pm on a Friday, and Katie's last meeting in her Papakura office is running painfully late.

As the minutes tick by she imagines the ferry that will get her across to Waiheke Island for her 6pm dinner reservation.

First she will have to get her car out of the parking building before navigating the gridlocked motorway — Auckland's version of a living nightmare.

Before panic can set in, she plugs her destination into the Uber app to look for an alternative.

Advertisement

It thinks for a second, before coming up with a solution: Katie will hire an electric scooter, sitting at a dock five minutes from her office. She will weave in and out of traffic all the way to Mechanics Bay in the city, then hail one of Uber's flying taxis over to the island.

It also gives her another option: There's an Uber car around the corner with three passengers in it, all wanting to get to the city. She could carpool to the ferry terminal.

This is the future of transport.

With Auckland's population projected to reach just under 1.99 million in the next decade, the city has attracted the attention of Uber — the transportation giant rapidly monopolising the market.

At Uber's Elevate Asia Pacific Expo in Tokyo, company heads discussed one of Uber's forthcoming innovations — a journey planner.

The technology will figure out the fastest way to get riders from A to B — designing trips which might combine ride-sharing bikes or scooters, public transport, and Uber's car and aircraft options.

In the words of Uber's chief operating officer Barney Harford, the plan is to turn the app into a "one-stop shop" for transport.

Over the coming years, the company will likely roll out rental electric bikes and scooters here, as well as UberAIR flying taxis and a carpooling option for Uber's traditional pickups.

UberAIR — the key product discussed at the Tokyo event — is certainly the more extreme of its innovations.

Electric, helicopter-like vehicles, initially manned by pilots, will accommodate up to five passengers.

The aircrafts, called eVTOLS, will launch from Skyports based near transport hubs or on top of high-rise buildings, before ascending straight up into the air and soaring across a city.

Cruising speed is estimated to sit between 241km/h and 321km/h, with the aircrafts flying between 300 and 600 metres above the ground.

Uber's head of aviation programmes Eric Allison predicts we will see air networks teeming with vehicles like Uber's eVTOLS in the near future.

"We are going to continue to work with the vehicle partners as the prototypes become real, and start flying," he says.

"It will kind of be a continual ratchet to help people understand that this is not just a sci-fi fantasy."

Uber is under no illusion the new mode of transport will replace current options, Allison says, but rather hopes it will compliment existing land-based transport.

"We think this could make a very meaningful contribution to flows of traffic in cities.

"We think that people need to be able to move around freely, and for that to happen there needs to be lots of different options."

The UberAIR concept, which Allison hopes will eventually become a mass-market product, is at least five years away from entering the New Zealand market.

The UberAIR concept is at least five years away from the NZ market. Image / Uber
The UberAIR concept is at least five years away from the NZ market. Image / Uber

The scheme will be trialled in Los Angeles and Dallas. A third city will be announced in the next six months from a shortlist which includes Australia, Brazil, France, India and Japan.

Test flights will whir into action in 2020 and the company hopes to launch UberAIR for public use on the app by 2023.

Auckland was initially tipped as having potential as a test city, but dropped from the list due to its small population.

The New Zealand Government had been "actively pursuing" the company, to figure out whether the country could have a role in testing the new scheme, according to an Uber spokeswoman.

U​ber's car-sharing service launched in New Zealand in 2014 and more than 485,000 Kiwis regularly use the app. It has more than 6500 drivers.

It operates in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin. It's expected to expand to smaller towns but Uber is cagey on where and when.

The app is continually updating the way it operates — on Wednesday the company announced a new rating system which could result in low-rated passengers being banned.

In the change, which will kick in later this month, drivers will rate passengers and out of five stars. They will be marked down for things like breaching the "no sex rule" or using abusive language or gestures.

For those still requiring four wheels to get around, the company is likely to introduce UberPOOL here.

The option, currently available in the US along with other countries such as the UK, Brazil and Australia, allows users to share their ride with other passengers going in the same direction.

Drivers get paid more while passengers get a cheaper fare.

JUMP electric bikes can be found in the company's home town - San Francisco - as well as a handful of other states around North America. Photo / Uber
JUMP electric bikes can be found in the company's home town - San Francisco - as well as a handful of other states around North America. Photo / Uber

But Uber's electric bikes and scooters on the horizon are part of the company's crusade to get cars off the road, reducing pollution and combating congestion in doing so, Harford says.

The company's JUMP electric-bike-sharing service operates in the company's home town — San Francisco — as well as a handful of other states around North America.

Riders use the Uber or JUMP apps to find a bike, pay a small fare to unlock it then a smaller fare per minute to ride it. Upon reaching your destination there is no need to find a bike dock - rather the bikes can be locked to existing bike racks or buildings.

Plans to take JUMP international are in place, though the company, as it often does, is keeping its timeline for this expansion under wraps.

Uber acquired JUMP in April, after partnering with the company earlier in the year as part of a pilot programme. JUMP employees joined Uber's team, though the bike-share company would carry on as an independent subsidiary.

"We have already rolled out JUMP bikes in eight cities and we have a team that is focused on expansion, and creating global expansion around the world," Harford says.

A couple of months later the company announced it's also investing in Lime, an electric scooter startup based in California.

Uber users in 70 cities around Europe and the US can now use the app to pay for, unlock and ride an electric scooter instead of hail a car.

But the scheme has hit a roadblock in recent weeks, following the announcement the city of San Francisco is granting scooter permits to small start-ups Scoot and Skip — but not Uber.

UberAIR Skyport design presented to the 2nd annual Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles. Image / Uber
UberAIR Skyport design presented to the 2nd annual Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles. Image / Uber

Without a permit, Lime cannot operate within the cities limits.

Auckland already has Onzo — a bike-share system allowing users to pay a small fee to ride an Onzo bike around the city. Onzo is also dockless, though the bikes are not electric.

The schemes are keyed at providing a form of "last-mile transportation", viable transport options linking riders with public bus, train and ferry networks.

Their electric nature is also an indication of Uber's direction — nearly all of the company's ventures going forward will rely on battery power rather than fuel.

Harford says the company is looking at partnering with electric vehicle companies to help existing and new driver-partners access new technology, at a lower price.

"So we think about individual vehicles … if we look out five, 10 years, we very much see a transition towards hybrid and then towards electric vehicles," he says.

Uber isn't the only company making electric vehicles for us to ride quietly into a green-tinged sunset.

Another model of unmanned autonomous flying vehicle is being tested in New Zealand, run by US aviation company Kitty Hawk and funded by Google co-founder Larry Page.

Testing of the company's small electric aircraft, Cora, is ongoing in Canterbury. Kitty Hawk has an agreement with the Government allowing trials to take place around Christchurch Airport.

Electric cars and bikes are becoming more commonplace — along with the necessary charging stations — and large-scale plans for light rail to be implemented into our public transport networks are also in place.

Our Government is enthusiastic about collaborating with Uber to bring more of the companies' initiatives to New Zealand.

"We support innovative transport solutions that have the potential to contribute to a safe, secure, sustainable and resilient transport system for New Zealand," says the Ministry of Transport's manager of strategic policy and innovation Richard Cross.

He says initiatives like JUMP and Lime would make a positive contribution to solving last-mile issues and could act to increase public transport patronage.

While new initiatives would likely require regulatory changes, Cross says we were "well placed" to meet these challenges.

A model of Uber's electric aircraft at the Elevate expo in Tokyo. Photo / Uber
A model of Uber's electric aircraft at the Elevate expo in Tokyo. Photo / Uber

On UberAIR, Cross says he welcome further discussions with Uber about future plans.

"The Government has frequent engagements with international businesses like Uber who are interested in operating in New Zealand.

"New Zealand is seen as an attractive place to test and trial these solutions because of our supportive environment for R&D [research and development], relatively uncrowded skies, trusted regulatory regime, and because New Zealand is a good place to do business."

Industry experts are slating the more extreme of the company's plots as being "pretty pie in the sky".

Barney Irvine, the Automobile Association's principal advisor for infrastructure and motoring affairs, is calling the idea of bringing UberAIR to New Zealand far-fetched.

"Introducing a new flying taxi service would require such a degree of change, it could not be done quickly — it would be a long period of change."

Though sceptical about Uber's Elevate scheme, Irvine says a shift in gear is required to solve the issue of congestion in New Zealand's main centres — particularly Auckland.

"Congestion is by far the number one concern for our Auckland members," Irvine says.

"It's something they really hate and they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."

"With the growth path that Auckland is on, congestion is getting steadily worse and it's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better."

Irvine says technology had a "major role" to play.

Data from Statistics New Zealand echos Irvine's concerns — with projections suggesting Auckland will be home to 1.99 million by 2028.

In the year ended June 2017, Auckland's population grew 42,700 to 1.66 million.

New Zealand's population grew an estimated 100,400. Auckland is the fastest-growing region, but Northland and Waikato were close behind, Stats New Zealand says.

Speaking at Uber's Tokyo event, even the company's aviation guru Eric Allison acknowledges more futuristic schemes like UberAIR could initially be difficult for the public to swallow.

However, Allison points out major changes often are — until they became mainstream.

"We're taking a look into the future," Allison says.

"When the first car was invented, people would have thought we were equally crazy suggesting that there would be millions and millions of cars."

Uber transport

The latest initiatives being rolled out by Uber:

UberAIR
Electric, helicopter-like vehicles, initially manned by pilots, will accommodate up to five passengers. The eVTOLS, will launch from Skyports based near transport hubs or on top of high-rise buildings.

UberPOOL
Allows riders to carpool with other passengers headed in the same direction. The fare gets cheaper as more passengers get added into the mix, while the driver earns more.

JUMP Bikes
Riders use the Uber or JUMP apps to find a bike, pay a fare to unlock it then a smaller fare per minute to ride it. The bikes are locked to existing bike racks or buildings.

Lime Scooters
Users can pay for, unlock and ride the electric scooter.

UberSELECT
Like an Uber for the high-flyers, UberSELECT provides high-end cars with high-rated drivers, for a slightly higher price.

UberFREIGHT
Trucking companies with loads to haul can be matched.

Journey planner
New technology will figure out the fastest way to get riders from A to B. Trips might combine ride-sharing bikes or scooters, public transport, and Uber's car and aircraft options.

UberEATS
New Zealand already uses the app on which they can order and have delivered food from restaurants and takeaway joints which have signed up.