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Airbus took the wraps off its futuristic flying car, and it’s pretty insane

Why it matters to you

Airbus' work shows it's serious about its urban mobility plan, one that the company says could get off the ground within seven years.

If you rolled your eyes and uttered a cynical “yeah, right” last year when you read about Airbus’s plan for a futuristic flying car, then you’ll be surprised at what showed up at the Geneva Motor Show this week. The aerospace giant unveiled a wickedly cool design for its ambitious “Pop.Up” transportation system, an autonomous concept comprising three separate modules.

Developed in partnership with design and engineering firm Italdesign, the modules include a pod for two passengers, a set of wheels to which the pod connects, and — here’s the really awesome part — a giant autonomous quadcopter that carries the pod between different sets of wheels.

Lifted into the air by a giant drone

It works like this: Say you’re at home and you need to head across town for an appointment. First, you summon a vehicle via the system’s app. Within minutes, the self-driving vehicle arrives  at your door. You climb inside and it takes you toward the city. But instead of heading into busy traffic, the pod parks before being lifted into the air by a giant drone that carries you over the city to another set of wheels located on quieter roads. After setting you safely down, the pod drives you off to your final destination while the drone whizzes off to assist another user. What do you mean, “yeah, right”?

As you can guess, you wouldn’t own any of the modules. Instead, this is more like a futuristic ridesharing service where multiple vehicles are shared across a city by numerous users. Hang on a minute, isn’t Uber also looking at the same kind of idea?

Airbus says the technology would also incorporate an AI platform to determine the best travel routes according to user habits and current traffic data.

“The urban sky is under-utilized”

In a video announcing the zero-emission system, Mathias Thomson, general manager of Airbus Urban Air Mobility, says Pop.Up “allows passengers a seamless and faster way of getting from A to B using the city sky … it’s a partnership between the airspace and the automotive sector, two powerful sectors that come together to develop new technology, new concepts for the future of smart cities.”

Thomson continues: “Right now, the urban sky is under-utilized and that’s exactly the proposition — the grid-like layout of road doesn’t actually do it for us. We think that by combining air and ground we’ll get a much better use of the space that we have in our cities.”

More: Bold idea gets off the ground — first flying car available for pre-order

The vehicle in Geneva sure looks impressive, and though Airbus isn’t quite ready to hit the “on” switch on any of the electric motors that power the technology, it says it aims to fully demonstrate the equipment by the end of this year.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders is backing this astonishing project all the way, telling an audience at a conference in 2016: “One hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground. We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously. With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads.”

Airbus says that while for now the project is a concept, it wants to have a ready-for-service design in place within 7 to 10 years. Of course, if it does manage to reach its goal in such a short space of time, there’ll be the small matter of aviation regulators to deal with. But the fact that Airbus is pushing ahead with the idea shows it’s serious about developing solutions for pressing problems, hopefully changing our minds from “yeah right” to “I can’t believe they’ve gone and done it.”