A vision of flying
How many times have you sat stuck in unmoving, nose-to-tail traffic, wishing you could press a button on top of the gear lever, or just pull back on the steering wheel and send your car soaring over the top of all the others? It’s an impossible dream, of course. Or is it? Certainly, you wouldn’t expect any of the big car manufacturers to take the idea seriously. Yet at 2017´s Geneva Motor Show, a full-size model of something that looked every millimetre a flying car was unveiled. And right there on its nose was a four-ring Audi badge. The concept, titled Pop.Up Next, also bore branding from Italdesign and Airbus. It followed on from an earlier project, Pop.Up, shown by the Audi-owned Milan-based design and engineering company Italdesign at the same show in 2017.
“We only create things that can become real in some form. The technology has to exist to make the concept feasible.”
The Pop.Up Next concept doesn’t herald a flying car per se, but a self-driving, self-flying, fully autonomous, electric-powered taxi. It’s designed to operate on a multi-mode principle. Two passengers sit in a capsule, which, for driving purposes, is attached to a four-wheel ground module that is also electric-powered and fully autonomous. For flight mode, the capsule is autonomously detached from the ground module, then attached to an eight-rotor air module or drone capable of vertical take-off.
On board with Angus
“The aeronautical-inspired seats feature netting that adjusts to each passenger’s shape.”
The concept certainly appears cool and suitably futuristic, both from outside and inside the ultra-minimalist cabin. My details and my ‘journey’ have already been pre-registered on an app on my smartphone and, as I settle into the seat, I’m recognised and welcomed aboard by PIA, my speaking Personal Intelligent Assistant. The seats certainly feel comfortable, and, currently, there’s sufficient space behind them to hold a couple of small bags, although it’s possible the flying taxi will be smaller in size when it reaches production. The ‘dashboard’ in front of me is one large screen that incorporates augmented-reality technology and enables me to highlight icons simply by moving my eyes.
By pressing on a small touchpad mounted between the seats, I can then choose the ambient-lighting theme I desire, and the type of music I wish to listen to through the speakers built into the headrests. Naturally, there is plenty of glass area to provide occupants with a fine view as they soar over the city, although the floor below my feet is not transparent – and deliberately so, as Nicolas points out: ‘We wanted to create an open environment that enables passengers to enjoy the experience, but we also wanted to ensure they felt safe and weren’t frightened.’
Trust is key
But how would I feel if I actually were in a real, electric battery-powered drone flight with no pilot in sight? ‘I’m sure people won’t trust an autonomous flying machine 100 per cent straight away – even though we already fly around the world in airliners on autopilot,’ Stefano Mancuso, the co-ordinator of Italdesign’s electric and electronic architecture project unit, tells me. ‘But by the time the flying taxi becomes a reality – say, by 2030 – we’ll all be very used to using autonomous cars. And, anyway, when the taxi’s in the air, there’ll always be human support at hand – there’ll always be someone passengers can talk to in a control centre who’ll be able to take remote control, if needs be.’ So, I invite an honest, quick-fire, one-word answer: would Stefano go up in the flying taxi? ‘Yes,’ comes the immediate reply. ‘I would. I won’t be on the first flight, though, as our CEO’s already signed up for that!’
The journey is the reward
The company has already conducted a flight in public, at Drone Week in Amsterdam last year – but using a 1:4 scale model. The flight module accurately placed a passenger capsule on the ground module, which then drove from the test grounds autonomously. This proved the effectiveness of the Airbus coupling system and its locking and latching functionality. The air module currently rests on legs to make docking easier, but it’s envisaged that such legs would not be required by the time the concept reaches production.
To make the project with full-sized versions viable, more powerful batteries than those that exist today would be required, and Airbus is currently working on developing such technology. Noise is another issue, and reduction of the high-pitched whirring familiar to anyone who has witnessed even a small drone in flight is being sought. Italdesign is working with Audi to develop battery and electric-motor technology for the ground module – an area in which Audi’s engineers have already proven highly competent, as the recent launch of the e-tron SUV testifies. Therefor an Audi engineer is also based with the Italdesign team in Italy.
“It’ll take a while for the drones to arrive in great numbers – maybe by 2030.”
So, let’s assume that the technology can be developed to make the flying taxi operate safely, all legislative issues can be successfully resolved, and the public is happy not only to travel in such a vehicle but also to live in a city with them flying overhead. How might it all work in practice, and by when might it happen? ‘It’ll take a while for the drones to arrive in great numbers – maybe by 2030,’ explains Massimo. ‘We estimate that there could be 200,000 to 300,000 of them in operation all over the world by then, and several thousand could be deployed in a city like London. We envisage that, to start with, they’d operate in strict air corridors only, perhaps flying from the airport and landing on a tower downtown. But, in the long term, it may be possible to open up the sky and give them more freedom.’
While the current model is being designed to have a short, cross-city range, Massimo surmises that, as technology advances, it may even be possible for longer journeys to be undertaken. Massimo however is convinced the flying taxi will become a reality and is clearly very much looking forward to taking a flight in it. ‘After all,’ he adds with a smile, ‘humankind has always had the dream of taking to the sky, right back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machines.’