Terrafugia Transition: Flying car available for mass market in one year.

Terrafugia Transition: Flying car available for mass market in one year.

Terrafugia Transition: Flying car available for mass market in one year.

Commentary about business and finance.
March 9 2011 4:29 PM

Where Is My Flying Car?

Maybe, just a year away.

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So are the engineers at Terrafugia just the next group up for another kick at Lucy's football? Perhaps. More than 100 prototype flying cars have failed to make it to market since the dawn of the Aviation Age. (For an excellent history, see Roadable Times.) And the company has any number of competitors, professional and amateur. But Terrafugia, if it fails, at the very least will have come closer than anyone else.

The company has already cleared the biggest hurdle: building a safe flying, driving, and converting vehicle. But there are other obstacles ahead. Foremost, the vehicle needs regulatory clearance from an alphabet soup of agencies, including the FAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Currently, the company says, it is working closely with regulators to ensure that the aircraft meets all standards. It has won important exemptions to certain road and air rules. But any "no" from any regulator—for being a pound overweight, or having a bumper an inch too short, or failing to have adequate airbags, or a thousand other issues—means at best delays and at worst a failed project. Weight, especially, has proven problematic for the company, Dietrich says—in part because a heavy car is a safe car, but a light plane is a safe plane, two engineering truths that are hard to square.


Still, progress has moved smoothly for the company, given the enormity of the challenge and the time it sometimes takes to get off the ground, in a manner of speaking. The Terrafugia team started work on a proof-of-concept plane back in 2006, to help gin up investment and to aid in the engineering process. By 2008, it was complete, and the company showed it off at the big annual experimental aircraft conference in Oshkosh, Wis. It did not fly, but it demonstrated its converting wings to a rapt crowd. The show generated tremendous investor and potential buyer interest—and gave the company real buzz.

A year later, a test pilot safely took off in and landed the proof-of-concept vehicle, saying afterward, "After a minute, I realized my daughter could do this. It was fun. Anyone could do it." Dietrich could not go up in the proof-of-concept vehicle, for insurance reasons. (He might be the head of a flying car company, but he has never flown in one, either.) But he did drive the plane around with its wings up. "It seemed really loud, because in comparison, cars have so much insulation," he notes. "But it drove well!"

The company is in the process of building two more test vehicles, ones with significant updates from the proof-of-concept plane. That earlier prototype is still at work, visiting air shows and museums. But the two new planes will go through a battery of tests to ensure the Transition is ready for sale. Terrafugia plans to take one back to Oshkosh—and to land it at the convention.

If all goes to plan, the Transition will go into full production toward the end of this year, or early next year. Already, curious aviation enthusiasts have started plunking down $10,000 refundable deposits. So can it sell enough for the business to become viable? Dietrich thinks so. Every year, consumers buy about 2,000 new aircraft, down from 17,000 in the 1970s, he says. He hopes the company can help boost that number by making flying accessible to a broader population, but says he does not think the company needsto in order to make a profit..

So maybe the future is finally here: not the Jetsons' flying car, but a plane you can park in your garage. "We're not going to replace people's cars," Dietrich says. "That's not what we're trying to do." But just once, his voice breaks into excitement. "This has been just around the corner for 50 years!"