The European aeronautical giant Airbus has partnered with Audi and Italdesign to create the Pop.Up concept, a vision of electric, autonomous urban air mobility. Mark Cousin, Airbus's head of flight demonstrators, spoke with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Peter Sigal about the project's potential, and the challenges of adapting aeronautics design to ground transportation.
What problems will urban air mobility solve?
The problem is massive traffic congestion today. Even though we're an aerospace company, we came quite quickly to the conclusion that better urban mobility will solve the problem. The key, and this is why we chose to link up with Audi, is that the urban air mobility component becomes a part of an integrated solution. The obvious example where the air part can contribute is the transport from city centers to airports. We all know how painful that is today. Trying to get from central London to Heathrow airport at peak times can take you an hour and a half, and it's unpredictable, so you need to allow yourself 2.5 hours to get there. Whereas with an urban air mobility solution like we're talking about, the flight would be 12 minutes. The feedback that we got at the 2017 Geneva auto show [where the Pop.Up concept debuted] is that people are really attracted to seamless mobility. They want to book a journey from A to B and they want the system to tell them the most efficient way, depending on their constraints in time and cost. They don't care how they get there.
How did the Pop.Up come about?
The original idea came from Italdesign. They asked Tom Enders, our CEO, toward the end of 2016 if Airbus would want to be involved in co-branding and helping to make a realistic concept. The Pop.Up is a concept. It's trying to show people what could be possible, and to elicit feedback and reaction, which we got in a volume that was vastly higher than we expected.
How has the project grown in scope?
The second version of the Pop.Up [that appeared at the 2018 Geneva show] was the subject of more concrete discussions between the CEOs of Audi and Airbus. We now have a formal cooperation agreement to develop the mobility of the future. The Pop.Up will help us study the feasibility of modularity. Can we break the vehicle down into three modules: Ground, capsule and air modules, and make the transport flexible and seamless? We have other elements of cooperation: We have been running a concept called Voom in Sao Paulo and now Mexico City. There we are using existing helicopters to pilot the use of air vehicles as urban transport, and we are going to work with Audi to provide the ground segment of travel.
What kind of expectations do you have for Voom?
The objective with Voom is not to introduce helicopters into cities around the world, because we know for multiple reasons that that is not acceptable in the majority of cities, but it's to learn the dynamics of the market and the way that kind of system can operate. We want to be fully prepared for the arrival of electric flying vehicles, which will change the game completely due to a dramatic reduction in cost. Their operating cost will be one-quarter to one-third that of a twin-engine helicopter.