By Annie Lowrey
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 8:04 PM
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a . . . Volkswagen with wings? A robotic duck? A character in a Pixar film? No. In the words of its inventors, it is a "roadable aircraft." In the terminology of our collective imagination, it is a flying car. And maybe it is coming to a garage, street, highway, airstrip or sky near you.
The company that makes the vehicle, Terrafugia - Latin for "flee the Earth" - is a small firm based in Woburn, Mass., made up almost entirely of engineers. It says it has scores of orders for the light two-person plane it calls the Transition, and plans to start production in the next year.
The idea for the company and the aircraft came to Carl Dietrich, one of Terrafugia's co-founders, while he was completing his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was, of all things, a regulatory change that sparked his imagination. In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration created a new category of plane, light-sport aircraft. The small planes require only 20 hours of flight time for pilot certification, less time than it takes to get a beauticians' license in some states. Dietrich, already an indefatigable inventor, started toying with the idea of producing a flying car that enthusiasts and businesspeople could take on short trips - 300 miles, say, a full day's car trip but a quick flight - and then drive and keep at home.
Dietrich and his co-founders came up with a designfor a standard light aircraft with wings that fold up, tucking themselves close to the body of the plane for driving or extending to full wingspan for flying in just 20 seconds. This is not George Jetson's magicallyhovering bug: The Transition needs to take off and land at an airport. But once it is on solid land, it drives on regular paved road.
So why buy a Transition rather than a luxury car and a used Cessna, the two of which would together prove cheaper than the $190,000 or so Terrafugia plans to charge? Who needs a flying car anyway? Dietrich says the plane solves many of pilots' common problems. According to a 2002 survey, pilots do not fly more often for four reasons: weather, high ownership costs, limited mobility on the ground and long door-to-door travel times. "The Transition directly addresses every one of those problems," he says.
Such light aircraft do not fly in strong winds or rain, and if they are in the air when bad weather hits, they sometimes need to land. Normally, pilots wait out storms to get home. But Transition owners, Dietrich says, can simply drive away.
As for ownership costs, the Transition promises savings in fuel and hangar fees. The plane tucks into a standard-sized garage bay with its wings folded up and runs on premium-grade auto fuel, which is cheaper than the stuff most planes use. (The thing gets pretty good gas mileage, too - 35 miles per gallon on the road and 25 in the air.) And because this plane is also a car, the Transition increases a pilot's mobility and decreases door-to-door travel time.
It all sounds good - but it raises the question: Why haven't we gotten this technology before? Why aren't aviation enthusiasts and traveling salespeople and Wall Street types already scooting around in such road-capable, light-sport aircraft? Weren't we promised flying cars decades ago?
The answer is: We actually have had flying cars, real flying cars, for decades. They just have never successfully made it into mass production. The problem has never been making flying cars. It's selling them.
It was 1917 when aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss built his Autoplane, an ugly, ungainly thing that really did fly. But the entry of the United States into World War I halted any movement toward mass production. After World War II, though, the idea of personal aircraft really took off. The war left the country with tens of thousands of trained pilots and manufacturing capacity to build aircraft for them.A 'built-in freeway'
In the 1950s, the first model to make it to market - nearly - was the famed Taylor Aerocar, the brainchild of former Navy pilot and Seattle resident Molt Taylor. The "Car with the Built-In Freeway," as one ad put it, certainly became famous. Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, rode in one, and another appeared in the television series "The Bob Cummings Show." Taylor reportedly came close to getting Detroit to produce the car, but concerns about its safety and marketability killed the deal. The Aerocar never became more than a collector's item.
Then, in the 1970s - and 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s - aviation enthusiasts were promised the Skycar, brainchild of inventor Paul Moller. His vehicle wins style points, resembling a juiced-up, floating Batmobile. But Moller never got the business end right, either. He supposedly spent a quarter of a billion dollars developing the vehicle, which has never gone into production. In the 2000s, he ended up in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission for "false and misleading statements about the company's imminent listing on the NYSE and the Nasdaq Stock Market, the projected value of company shares after such listing, and the prospect for Skycar sales and revenue."
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, seeRoadable 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 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. 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.A plane in the garage
Still, progress has moved smoothly for the company, given the enormity of the challenge and the time it can take 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 company that makes a flying car, but he has never flown in one.) 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 needs to in order to make a profit.
So maybe the future is finally here: not the Jetson's 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!"
Lowrey reports on economics and business for Slate.