“I see opening up new horizons as part of the job.”

With the Pop.Up concept, Italdesign and its research partner Airbus are envisioning the future of transportation systems. We talk to Jörg Astalosch, CEO of Italdesign, about megacities, flying cars and new dimensions.

Patrick Morda (interview) & Matthias Ziegler (photo)
Jörg Astalosch, 45,
Jörg Astalosch, 45,

began his career at Volkswagen in 1988, where he worked in various roles in Procurement and General Management. He worked for the CEO of Volkswagen AG starting in 1999, and for the Chairman of the Supervisory Board from 2002. After a number of positions within the Volkswagen Group, he became CEO of Italdesign in September 2015. Located just outside Turin, Italdesign has been part of the Volkswagen Group since 2010 and together with Ducati is part of AUDI AG.

Mr. Astalosch, let’s look twenty years into the future: Will cities be full of Pop.Ups?

We feel confident that Pop.Up will become an important element in traffic flows in metropolitan areas. But we believe in an intermodal transportation system. That means a combination of various concepts—both new and existing ones. All the transportation experts agree on this. Yet the modular nature of Pop.Up is still a promising approach. We aim to stay as open-minded as possible in tackling the topic and expanding the idea. Instead of selling our concept, we want to join hands with our partners to develop solutions tailored to our cities.

And you reckon that those will increasingly be megacities?

It’s estimated that some 750 million people will live in megacities by 2030—almost twice as many as today. And all of those conurbations will have distinctive needs. Dhaka in Bangladesh is and will remain different from L.A., but both will need mobility solutions.

Doesn’t everyone ultimately complain about—or lack—the same things? Or does London, for instance, have very different requirements to Dubai?

They may all suffer from the same illness—a lack of transport solutions. But the symptoms are not the same, so the remedies vary. In London, around four million people take the underground every day, while above ground, the streets see over 20 million vehicle movements. Most of it is freight traffic, that’s a piece of the puzzle we could go after. Goods deliveries, for example, could be restricted to nighttime. But who would receive and process them? There’s this impression that Dubai has unlimited resources in terms of space and financing. And it’s true, the regulations offer a lot of direct scope to act. By comparison, London operates with tighter constraints—but is no less innovative for it. That’s precisely why it’s so vital to get a feel for clients and understand them. Otherwise, you’re little more than a salesperson. And we don’t want that. We’re already in talks with both cities and are trying to learn from them. None of this is as trivial as it sounds.

Just to give us some context, maybe you could briefly explain what exactly Italdesign is?

We are a service provider who connects design with engineering, prototyping and project management and we aspire to offer business savvy informed by creativity. That’s why we like to give our project teams and their ideas free rein. The same goes for Pop.Up. It may sound very idealistic and, to be sure, it doesn’t always work. It’s walking a fine line between giving direction and sometimes just saying, go ahead and do something crazy. I have to admit: Sometimes we weren’t sure whether the Pop.Up concept was too radical, too far ahead of its time.

So what made you stick with it?

Our readiness to see the big picture. I’ll be turning 46 soon. The core target group for a concept like Pop.Up—without wanting to sound exclusionary—is maybe just starting at grade school today. If mobility and digital are already merging more and more, what will it be like when those kids are grown-ups?

You said that Italdesign is a service provider. But no one has approached you and requested that you develop something like Pop.Up, did they?

No. We simply sat down as a team and asked ourselves, how can we shapetomorrow’s mobility?

At first glance, that doesn’t seem like Italdesign’s core competency.

I don’t see it that way. Back in the day, Italdesign designed the first VW Golf and the first Fiat Panda. Both were exceptional mobility solutions in tune with the needs of their respective eras. In the future, of course, urban areas will not only look totally different but their problems and solutions will be, too.

And so your response is Pop.Up?

Yes, that’s the frame of reference for our investigation and the project. We wanted to come up with something very modern and visionary that made people’s and communities’ lives easier. There was also a second concept—a kind of flying sports car—but in the end we decided against that.

Why? After all, sports cars are virtually guaranteed success today.

That’s true if the emphasis is squarely on “today.” But they don’t solve any traffic problems for the man in the street today, and they certainly won’t tomorrow. That’s why it’s so essential that Pop.Up is a system accessible to everyone.

How exactly did Pop.Up come about?

It was a team effort. Everyone contributed something from a different perspective or thematic focus. After all, we’re an interdisciplinary setup that also does development work for train and helicopter manufacturers. Our head of design, Filippo Perini, was the first to formulate the idea of three-dimensional transportation. We then purposely selected Roberta Ricci and Marco Bergero—two very young project managers who are both around 30—to drive things forward. Precisely because we wanted fresh, new thinking. Our communications experts, for instance, felt that it’s imperative to provide Pop.Up customers with information about the city via screens. This anchors the system better in communities and creates a better social climate. The list is still very long. And—even to me—some of the things on it initially seem outlandish, perhaps even esoteric. But if you really think about it and realize that this could be a genuinely exciting opportunity, then you’ve got to be willing to self-correct. My friend and colleague Massimo Martinotti introduced the 360-degree approach that mobility should be accessible and serviceable to all, which is why Pop.Up has to have a modular design.


Because, otherwise, excessive infrastructure costs and other factors would restrict availability. If Pop.Up were only able to fly, that would automatically be limiting in the same way that only being able to drive would be. Modularity, with its coupling functions, is key.


Find out more about the Pop.Up concept vehicle.


To Turin

“Right now we’re in one of these zero to one moments.”


Italdesign has been working closely with manufacturers for nearly 50 years—from cars to helicopters and from initial consulting to final production, including styling, conceptual and vehicle architecture. Founded by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, the company employs around 1,000 people at its headquarters, its Barcelona office and at hubs around the world.


So how and when did Airbus enter the picture?

We feel confident that if it rolls on wheels, we can do a very good job of it. For the past 50 years, we’ve developed cars, buses, trucks and even have a tradition of employing aeronautical engineers. Even so, flight technology is highly specialized. And we soon realized that Airbus had been active in urban mobility for some time. We were very grateful when we could take this kind of crazy basic concept to Airbus and quickly received the support of CEO Tom Enders and his team. Collaborating with the people at our research partner Airbus’s Urban Air Mobility and its CEO Tom Enders, who are a highly innovative bunch, was an absolute pleasure. Plus, receiving validation of the air module system was, of course, vitally important. We also asked each other questions. That process naturally gave rise to totally new ideas—and they helped propel the overall concept as well as the ground module forward.

What part of the concept is so far-fetched? After all, we ferry road traffic beneath the English Channel, in California tunnels are being dug to transport people in vacuum tubes and space tourism is en vogue …

That’s true.

… and the idea of flying cars is almost as old as the car itself.

Yes, exactly. But flying cars and all-in-one solutions aren’t going to help us move forward. Then what you’ve got is a rolling vehicle with an additional complex flying machine on top. Traveling with both of them—as you would have to—would take up a lot of space. As I’ve said, that’s why modularity is the keyword for us. When you use Pop.Up’s car module, then that’s the only piece on the road and not the 150 to 200-kilogram-heavy flight module, too, or vice versa. Plus, you don’t need landing sites outside the urban centers.

What form will modularity take with Pop.Up then?

The idea is to keep customers on a journey in a single environment from start to finish. To illustrate what I mean, we need to take a leap into the future and imagine this scene: One day, you’ll be able to take Hyperloop 1 to Dubai in a passenger capsule compatible with Pop.Up. When you arrive at the hub, you and your capsule are placed on the car module, which naturally already knows who you are and where you’re going. All of this happens without you having to get out, which with temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius is a real perk. And if the system calculates that it’s better to fly to your destination, the air module will be waiting for you instead. When we reach the point where Pop.Up is synchronized with infrastructure such as airports and certain processes can be decentralized—that’s when things will get really exciting. The advantages in terms of time savings and comfort levels would be tremendous. You simply have to view mobility as a service.

Aside from that, what fundamental problems does mobility face today and, above all, in coming years.

When you see pictures of Beijing or other major metropolises, it’s clear that emissions are a serious concern. Then there’s the sheer lack of space, especially as transportation networks currently use so much of it. We have to make it our goal to reclaim those areas with the help of intelligent systems. That’s why we’ve also partnered with Carlo Ratti Architects—to give mobility in cities a certain sense of ease. After all, shouldn’t our cities be designed around people rather than modes of transportation?

With all due respect, that sounds pretty fanciful.

Yes, but think back to the 19th century when the Red Flag Act was still in force in Great Britain, or a decade ago when the iPhone didn’t yet exist. Twenty years ago, there was no Google. I see opening up new horizons as part of the job.

With all that in mind, do you look back with nostalgia or ahead with excitement when you think about personal mobility?

Definitely the latter. As Peter Thiel once put it, we’re right in the middle of a “zero to one” moment. In other words, we’re combining technologies in new ways that will take us to the next level. Rather than just fine-tuning, it’s creating entirely new systems—in the field of mobility, too. It’s possible that, in ten years’ time, Pop.Up will have evolved to look very different. But the ideas of intermodality and modularity as well as considering the third dimension in urban space are full of potential. I look forward to seeing it realized—and being surprised!