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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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!"


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

The U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS in Syria Will Probably Benefit America’s Other Enemies

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
Sept. 23 2014 11:32 AM Key & Peele Explain What Straights Should Expect at a Gay Wedding
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 23 2014 11:30 AM A Rope Mistress, the Rubber Master, Sadomasochist Sisters: Portraits in Kink
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google CEO: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.