FutureStructure

Pop.Up: Not Just Another Flying Car Concept

French transportation giant Airbus plans to test a flying vehicle prototype later this year. Time will tell if that jump-starts the ambitious drone-car protype unveiled March 7 at the Geneva car show.

by / March 10, 2017
The Pop.Up design concept Italdesign

Will your future taxi drive or fly? You decide by app, based on sober, adult metrics like time, traffic and emissions — and maybe also depending on whether you just want to indulge your inner child and soar.

That’s the future, according to Airbus, which on Tuesday, March 7, unveiled its Pop.Up drone-car concept at the 87th Geneva International Motor Show. The word "taxi" never actually appears in video or print press materials, but a simulation of the app makes clear that payment per trip is involved — and that vehicles return to a remote location for charging.

Unlike those pesky flying cars we’ve been promised since the mid-20th century, Airbus has said an airborne future may not be that far off. It has planned flight tests of a vehicle prototype — though maybe not the one unveiled Tuesday — in late 2017, which may explain the appearance of its flying car at a show for road-bound vehicles.

Mathias Thomsen, Airbus’ general manager/urban air mobility, said in a statement that the company is “intrigued” at how early automakers get concepts out to the public and believes similar engagement can help refine its airborne idea.

Pop.Up, the vehicle shown in Switzerland, is described as “the first modular, fully electric, zero-emission concept vehicle system,” and aims to ease traffic in megacities.

Visually, it’s a take on the cities-of-the-air idea we’ve been seeing since Blade Runner or The Fifth Element — but with a nod to Apple’s modern color scheme and the simplified aesthetic of, say, Humans.

Logistically, Pop.Up is part of Airbus’s Project Vahana, a vision of the company’s A^3 advanced projects and partnerships unit located in Silicon Valley — an area prone to gridlock, Airbus has noted. Project Vahana focuses on developing a self-piloted flying vehicle platform for passengers and cargo — and Pop.Up. is a passenger component.

The underlying issue is megacity traffic, which concerns the French transportation giant greatly. A recent issue of its online magazine pointed out that by 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in cities — a 10 percent jump from current numbers.

This combination flying and driving car is a “joint reflection” with Italian design and engineering company Italconcept that focuses on “how to address the mobility challenges of megacities achievable for a majority,” Airbus said in a news release.

Coping with a densely-populated future that will reportedly see L.A.’s population to 12 million and New York City nearly reach 20 million demands an adaptable concept, the company said.

As shown in the video above, Pop.Up combines a two-seater capsule with either a carbon-fiber “ground module” vehicle chassis or a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) “air module” depending on the consumer’s choice — by land or by air. And yes, it can be summoned by smartphone app.

Dimensionally, the capsule is about 8 feet long, 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. As a car, it has a roughly 80-mile range; as an eight-rotor aircraft, it has a roughly 60-mile range — though in either case, charging time per chassis is a mere 15 minutes.

The concept, Thomsen said, can fly or drive autonomously or even interface with other transportation systems like the hyperloop.

“The grid-like layout of road doesn’t do it for us,” he said in a statement. “We think by combining air and ground, we will get a much better use of the space that we have in our cities.”

The M.O., Airbus said, is simple: "Passengers plan their journey and book their trip via an easy-to-use app. The system automatically suggests the best transport solution. ...”

Italdesign CEO Jorg Astalosch said the project will “take down the boundaries between these different [transportation] specialties and find the best solution for future mega-cities.”

Understandably, the forward-facing Internet has largely been appreciative.

Business Insider called it “wild,” but said it’s “unlikely we’ll see anything like it soon.”

CNet called it “a taxi that can automatically switch between the road and the sky.”

But is a late 2017 vehicle test date realistic? A^3 CEO Rodin Lyasoff said yes, in an issue of the company's online magazine.

“Many of the technologies needed, such as batteries, motors and avionics, are most of the way there,” he said, though the company admits no “mature airborne solutions” are out there yet.

It’s also somewhat unclear whether Airbus will test the Pop.Up later this year, although The India Times said in January that Airbus will test an "autonomous flying taxi" — which sounds similar.

Lyasoff said this is one future we'll live to see.

“In as little as 10 years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people,” he said.

Technologists have been writing the same form letter for decades: “Dear Future, please remit: One flying car, post-haste.”

Time, as usual, will tell if Airbus can deliver.