A new concept, intended to demonstrate a future vision of urban mobility, was revealed by Italdesign and Airbus at the 87th Geneva International Motor Show. It’s called Pop.UP, the first modular, fully electric, zero emission vehicle system designed to help eliminate traffic congestion in future megacities. Airbus tells us that passengers will be able to hail the vehicle via an app and an artificial intelligence system will then work out the best way to travel based on the user’s destination.
It may seem an odd place for an aircraft giant to exhibit but the glitzy, cutting-edge Geneva Motor Show is where Airbus chose to unveil an ambitious concept vehicle intended to demonstrate a future vision of urban mobility.
Dubbed “Pop.Up”, the vehicle is an ingenious modular air and ground passenger concept vehicle consisting of three main components: a carbon-fibre passenger capsule, a battery-powered ground module and an air module electrically propelled by eight counter-rotating rotors.
Passengers hail the vehicle via an app and an artificial intelligence system works out the best way to travel based on their destination. If this is by road, the passenger cabin is attached to a ground module and becomes a car; if the skies look a better alternative, it is attached to an air module and is transformed into a self-piloted urban air vehicle that leaves the roads behind. Once the passengers are safely delivered, the modules return to a recharging station.
Rise of the megacity
The Pop.Up concept is part of Airbus’s drive to develop innovative technological solutions to the modern day problems facing the urban populations of megacities, which are defined as having a population of more than 10 million people.
Today’s cities are seriously threatened by damaging levels of particulates and other nasties from streets that are clogged with noisy, polluting cars, buses, lorries and taxis.
According to traffic analytics firm Inrix, the inhabitants of Los Angeles spend a whopping 104 hours a year stuck in traffic, trudging along day in and day out at less than 65 per cent of the free-flow speed. In fact, the US is home to 10 of the 20 slowest cities in the world and, according to McKinsey, traffic congestion is projected to cost $350 billion a year in the EU and the US by 2030 when there will be 41 megacities worldwide and more than 5 billion people living in them.
Mathias Thomsen, General Manager for Urban Air Mobility at Airbus, says the Pop.Up concept — created in partnership with car designer Italdesign — is most emphatically not designed to pitch the idea of the clichéd “flying car” but more a “multi-modal” vehicle to solve the specific problems of the 21st century. The urban vehicle of the future will have to take into account sustainable and intelligent infrastructure, apps, integration, power systems, urban planning, sociology and many other factors, he believes.
“We wanted to look beyond current technological limitations and stretch our imaginations to what might make sense in the future for urban transportation. If a ‘modular’ vehicle makes sense, it might attract urban developers to create the necessary ground infrastructure ahead of launch, which in turn could help determine the way we build the vehicle in the end,” Thomsen says.
“Concepts such as this allow us a little more freedom to stretch the assumptions we have about battery capacity and manufacturing for instance. It is exciting to be a little more ‘futuristic’.”
His colleague, Marius Bebesel, head of Airbus’ CityAirbus demonstrator and one of the company’s engineers who contributed to the project, says that although Pop.Up relies on future technologies, such as electric propulsion and sense-and-avoid technology, that are not yet mature enough, the basic idea of the vehicle is “feasible”. He adds that the Airbus team worked closely with Italdesign to ensure that Pop.Up’s aeromechanic design, propulsion system, architecture and sensor concept were all realistic.
Closer to the consumer
Thomsen explains that Airbus chose Geneva, rather than an airshow, to exhibit Pop.Up for a very specific reason: “Firstly, we wanted to show this vehicle at Geneva because it will be used in places where people would normally use a car. The whole use case for this vehicle is in the ground transport environment but it will offer the ability to supplement that through flight. Geneva offers the right consumers for what we call urban mobility services.
“We also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with automotive sector as we progress to industrialising such vehicles and manufacture at scale.”
This collaborative approach is exemplified by the partnership with Turin-based Italdesign in order to tap into the creativity of one of the world’s leading vehicle design and development companies.
Says Thomsen, “Airbus is really keen to work with external partners whose expertise might yield innovative ideas. Italdesign has a long history of amazing automotive innovation. Over the past 40 years it has become not just a leading car design company but a centre for engineering beyond cars.”
While Italdesign created the concept and design, he says Airbus provided five engineers to bring expertise and practical experience on aircraft engineering to the project.
“What was interesting was how the technology of rotorcraft changed the design,” says Thomsen. “While small rotors look nice, you actually need bigger ones if you are to meet the payload assumptions for this vehicle.”
He adds that not only did the modular concept emerge out of the work the two companies did together but the partnership further underlined the need for a collaborative approach.
Italdesign CEO Jörg Astalosch agrees, “When we designed the concept, we always had in mind its accessibility to a wide public. With the technical experts at Airbus, we aimed for a realistic and scalable system that would democratise the availability of the city sky. The beauty of Pop.Up is that it could be an integral part of cities’ existing public metro or tram transport systems or integrate seamlessly into a future one. For example, the passenger capsule could easily be designed to be compatible with hyperloops.”
While Thomsen firmly believes that adding the third dimension to multi-modal transportation networks will improve the way we live and how we get from A to B, taking Pop.Up from an eye-catching concept to urban mobility reality is something Thomsen believes will require partnership across not only the aerospace and automotive sectors but also local government for the necessary infrastructure and regulatory frameworks.
He is also convinced that Airbus is the natural leader of such groundbreaking developments. He says, “There are plenty of concepts out there but our expertise in flight and the fact that we have the huge resources of a major corporation, with a structure that is more akin to a start-up, means we are best placed to bring these ideas to reality.”