Terrafugia Leads the Race to Build a Flying Car

August 11, 2011

11:30 am

Two-hour flight delays are bad enough, but those eager to hop in a flying car have been waiting for decades. Moller International has been plodding forward since 1983 to develop vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, and its first test flight of the Moller Skycar is still in the future, scheduled for October 11. The Samson Motorworks Switchblade was still navigating on land as of February. And other companies, starved for funding, only have scaled-down models.

But the Boston-based aerospace company Terrafugia is preparing for takeoff, with deliveries of their two-person flying car scheduled for late 2012. A proof-of-concept vehicle first flew in March 2009 in Plattsburgh, New York, and the newest version will test its wings next March.

“This breakthrough changes the world of personal mobility. Travel now becomes a hassle-free integrated land-air experience,” said Carl Dietrich, CEO/CTO and cofounder of Terrafugia, after the 2009 flight. “It’s what aviation enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918.”

Meaning “escape from land,” Terrafugia was founded by Dietrich and two other pilots, Anna Mracek Dietrich and Samuel Schweighart, who all studied in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. Their team is now crafting the Transition, which has a range of 490 miles and a maximum speed of 115 mph in the air and a respectable gas mileage of 35 mpg on the ground. It also features a vehicle parachute and rear-wheel drive.

Despite its promise, the Transition has still faced delays. Last July, Terrafugia was forecasting deliveries in late 2011. They also hoped to show a production prototype this July at EAA AirVenture in Wisconsin, but had to cancel because it wasn’t ready.   

Another industry hopeful is the Model 367 or Bipod by Scaled Composites, known for the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and the ensuing collaboration with Virgin Galactic. A hybrid gas-electric vehicle, the Bipod was built as a “test bed” using low-cost, commercial off-the-shelf materials. It successfully hit the skies in early 2011, within four months after design began. And it even outpaces the Transition, with a top speed of 200 mph and a 700-mile range.

In this long race to build a flying car, what will determine the winner?

Technology. Obviously, no company will succeed unless its model actually flies. Combining a plane with a car presents unique challenges that have stalled many a competitor: incorporating car components without weighing down the plane, ensuring that folded wings don’t extend beyond one car lane, and keeping cost down.

Complying with Regulations. Terrafugia is an industry leader partly because it has already jumped through government hoops. Certified as a light sport aircraft and a multipurpose passenger vehicle, the Transition received an exemption in 2010 from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules to exceed the weight limit by 110 pounds. This June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration waived regulations related to advanced airbags (until 2013) and materials for tires, rims, and windshields (until 2015). And Terrafugia will have to deal with even more red tape if they want to dominate the international market.

Finding Customers. Like many technologies, the Transition will start life as an expensive luxury item. If you’re not a certified pilot, you need to shell out around $3,000-5,000 and 20 hours of training to earn a sport pilot license, plus at least $200,000 for the vehicle itself. Terrafugia will also provide familiarization training for all courageous buyers.

In a nod to the elite clientele they are targeting, Terrafugia takes pains to note that the Transition’s “cargo area holds golf clubs.” But when it comes down to it, the Transition is less of a flying car than a roadable aircraft, intended for pilots.

“The Transition isn’t designed to replace anyone’s car, but it could replace your airplane,” their website explains. It reduces costs for pilots by consuming car gasoline, eliminating the need for ground transportation, and fitting in your garage rather than a rented hangar.

Other flying cars have their sights on the military. Terrafugia is a subcontractor for the Transformer, a four-person humvee-helicopter, under a Department of Defense project worth $65 million, according to Terrafugia. Still several years away, the Transformer would travel over 280 miles on one tank of fuel and help troops navigate uncertain terrain. One of the interested vendors on the project was Boeing.

For more peaceful missions, the Maverick is an FAA-compliant, off-road vehicle that flies with a powered parachute. The Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center designed it to bring supplies and health care to isolated populations. The Maverick costs around $84,000 and may also serve search-and-rescue personnel and sports enthusiasts.

Slowed by the drag of tough technology, double regulation, and high costs, the future of flying cars as mainstream transportation is still far away. But they’ll be a useful alternative for pilots, and—for the rest of us—an exciting journey to look forward to.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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