Since the dawn of aviation, Americans have dreamed of buying a flying car and opening up the skies to everyone. The utopian dream is embodied in the opening credits of The Jetsons, in which a relaxed George commutes to work and plops his feet on his desk for nap. There’s a more pessimistic example of what happens when anyone can fly in the (true-life) opening of The Wolf of Wall Street, when a stoned Leonardo DiCaprio crashes his helicopter while trying to land it at his home.
We could be seeing more of both these scenes in the near future, thanks to Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia, which makes a car-plane hybrid called the Transition. Scheduled to debut in 2016 at an estimated cost of $279,000, the Transition is a street-legal car with wings that fold out to make an FAA-approved airplane.
In trying to imagine the world of flying cars, the technology is the easiest part to predict. The hardest is how people will react. Regulators and consumers will have to balance the dream of making flight available for all with the dangers of more people flying overhead. They’ll weigh the benefits—of Terrafugia’s new safety features and travelers who can make better decisions in hazardous weather—with the risks of a possible flood of less experienced pilots overhead.
The Vehicle And Its Pilots
The Transition is designed to be ready for the road, the air, and your home. It fits in a home’s single-car garage and drives with controls comprehensible to anyone with a driver’s license.
You won’t be able to use it to fly across town in the morning. What you can do is drive it over to one of the nearly 5,000 public airports across the country and convert it to flying mode in under a minute.
To take off, of course, you’ll need a pilot’s license: specifically, a sports pilot license. Despite the Transition’s weight, the FAA has approved the Transition as a light sport aircraft (LSA). To operate an LSA, a pilot needs just 20 hours of flight time. That’s less time than a leisurely player takes to complete a video game.
The idea of increasing the number of infrequent fliers in the sky worries Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Company, Inc., an airline industry analysis consultant. "If I’m not flying enough to stay proficient and current, then I’m a liability to myself and to others," Mann says.
Crashes by amateur pilots happen regularly: General aviation has a very poor safety record compared to commercial flights. According to a 2012 National Transportation Safety Board report, in 2010, general aviation accidents accounted for 96 percent of all accidents, 97 percent of fatal accidents, and 96 percent of total fatalities of all U.S. civil aviation.
But part-time fliers are exactly the people Terrafugia CEO/CTO and cofounder Carl Dietrich expects to buy the Transition. Dietrich says he expects to open up a broader range of consumers with this "fun flier." A quarter of the company’s existing customers aren’t pilots at all, he says. "They are going to go out and become sports pilots and operate the Transitions, bringing more blood into the industry that we think it surely needs," Dietrich predicts.
Dietrich uses the example of regional salespeople who travel all over New England or the Midwest and need to get to their meetings, and then want to get home for dinner with their family. "The Transition lets them get to more meetings, visit more clients in a day, and still get home to their family for dinner," he says.
New Safety in the Air
Dietrich says the plane’s ease of use, safety features, and conversion ability will all cut down on pilot errors. Dietrich plans to market the the Transition as a very easy airplane to fly. It’s designed to fly itself off the ground, and in the air the Transition is very much a cruiser of an airplane. "Just push the throttle forward, and give a little back pressure when rotation speed is reached," Dietrich says, explaining the magic of piloting aircraft as a series of simple actions.
Making a plane highway-ready introduces a number of features that are rare in aeronautics today. Dietrich says this has a lot to do with the level of support Terrafugia received from the FAA: bringing automotive safety technology to the general aviation industry is a natural win for the federal agency. The Transition comes equipped with a safety cage and crumple zone, as well as driver and passenger airbags, just like in your automobile.
The Transition will weigh more than the standard LSA because bringing all those automotive-safety pieces require more weight. Dietrich says they will be going back and asking for even more weight to beef up more safety standards. "We’re expecting them to say yes again for the same reason they said yes the last time," Dietrich says.
Apart from the automotive-safety technology, the Transition will include "synthetic vision" showing a computer-rendered image of all the terrain around you in flight. (Handy when flying through fog.) The "carplane" also comes equipped with a rocket-deployed parachute for the entire vehicle. In an emergency, you pull the handle, the rocket shoots out, and the vehicle glides to the earth like the Apollo 13. "If something goes wrong, I can just pull the handle," Dietrich says. "It’s very reassuring for a lot of people."
The most important safety innovation may be the ill-advised flights that don’t happen. "It’s decision-making," Dietrich says, referring to the option to drive your plane. "If the weather is no good on Sunday evening, you drive back and deal with the traffic, and you don’t have to worry about going back to get the airplane later. A big part of our value proposition is toward the recreational pilot, and this just gives them a better quality of life."
The Business Going Forward, And Straight Up
Terrafugia will be a decade old by the time of the Transition is scheduled to debut, thanks to periodic delays. Dietrich says the first was financing delayed by the economic downturn in 2008, and another involved technical challenges as they went through design changes during development and testing.
"The good news is we’ve been at this for eight years and we are less than two years from shipping the product," the CEO says.
Mann agrees, and sees a business there when the Transition roles out. "These are smart guys at MIT, they know their aero," Mann says. "They have a business case for it." Mann also says it’s not a particularly good car and not a particularly good airplane, though that’s a critique you could make of any disruptive technology, something Dietrich maintains he has in the Transition.
Next up? The TF-X, a hybrid electric flying car that has a fixed wing, electric ground drive, electric power assist on vertical takeoff, and automated landing:
Still in development, the TF-X is designed to be up and flying at 200 mph in less than 20 seconds, using electric motors for VTOL designed to be much quieter than traditional rotors. The TF-X will be a semiautonomous vehicle: Dietrich predicts its pilots will need less than five hours of training. Flying cars may proliferate soon, but our role in flying them will almost certainly shrink.