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People are still trying to make cars that morph into helicopters

A collaboration between Italdesign, Airbus, and Audi keeps the dream alive

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge

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Last year, Airbus unveiled a truly bizarre concept at the Geneva Motor Show: a car-drone-train mash-up with the effervescent name of Pop.Up. But if the whole thing seemed a bit half-baked and lackluster then, Pop.Up is back for this year’s show with an entirely refreshed look courtesy of Audi. I saw it in person here in Geneva, and it’s every bit as unbelievable in reality as it is in pictures.

Dubbed Pop.Up Next, this year’s concept is built around a two-seater Smart Car-sized monocoque, which Airbus calls the passenger capsule. The capsule can ride along on a base of wheels as a regular car or, with the help of a humongous drone module, be hoisted into the air for vertical flight. The modular capsules can also connect to each other to form a train-like vehicle. Audi is contributing its battery technology and automation know-how, the designers say.

Like all good concepts, this one isn’t just about the hardware. Italdesign’s team, which collaborated with Audi and Airbus on creating the demo vehicle on show in Geneva, explains that the Pop.Up system represents a three-part vision for the future. One component is an artificial intelligence that “based on its user knowledge, manages the travel complexity offering alternative usage scenarios and assuring a seamless travel experience.” The second part is the travel module itself and its air and ground attachments. And the third is a user interface that “dialogues with users in a fully virtual environment.” Knowing how hard good software is to design and create, the level of (over)ambition feels roughly equal in all three parts of the Pop.Up Next.

And yet, given the number of prototype passenger drones we’ve seen take flight just in the last few months, we’re not ready to dismiss anything completely out of hand. There’s Larry Page’s flying car, Uber’s aerial taxi, and Airbus’ own Vahana project, all building toward the long-promised, still-undelivered flying-car future.

“Pop.Up Next is an ambitious vision that could permanently change our urban life in the future,” says Bernd Martens, an Audi board member and president of Italdesign. The new version is certainly more stylish than the original, and though the vastness of the four propellers hanging overhead maintained an air of the ludicrous about it, most people passing by were casting admiring glances at the cute contraption before them.

A curved 49-inch screen is your only method of interaction inside this baby Batmobile

Pop.up Next is significantly lighter than the first concept, and the cabin has been completely reimagined, with a curved 49-inch screen that stretches from pillar to pillar. “Interaction between humans and the machine is performed by speech and face recognition, eye-tracking and a touch function,” the designers say. Which is really handy, given the total lack of a steering wheel, pedals, or any other physical controls. I don’t object to that too much, however, as the interior of this compact vehicle is pleasingly spacious, minimal, and accommodating for a human. Maybe I’ve spent too much time around the supercars in Geneva, but it’s refreshing to have a space designed with human comfort as the primary consideration.

If you’re wondering if this will ever go into production, you’re asking the wrong question. Of course it won’t. There is no demand for a vehicle like this, to say nothing of the complete lack of infrastructure or regulatory allowances. The Pop.Up concept is more about exploring the possibilities of the future, especially as battery technology improves, cars get smarter, and manufacturers get bolder about the types of designs they choose to produce. And, at least to some small extent, it’s also about indulging those childhood fantasies and sketches that every car designer has hidden away in a treasure chest somewhere.


Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge