From the Runway to the Road: Terrafugia Redefines the Flying Car—Make That Drivable Airplane

5/8/08Follow @wroush

Don’t call it a flying car. It’s a “roadable aircraft.”

It’s named the Transition, and the first full-scale model is taking shape inside a former machine shop on an industrial back alley in Woburn, MA. Between now and late July, the 10 employees of angel-funded startup Terrafugia will be spending “a lot of long days, nights, and weekends” in that shop, says CEO and founder Carl Dietrich. That’s because they want to show off their concept vehicle at AirVenture—the world’s largest aviation festival, held annually in Oshkosh, WI—and there’s a lot of work to finish first.

When I visited Terrafugia yesterday, technicians were shaping the grooves in the fuselage’s carbon-fiber skin that will hold the straps for the vehicle’s rocket-fired emergency parachute. They hadn’t yet attached the folding wings to the fuselage or the fuselage to the empanage (which will hold up the dual tails), and they had yet to figure out where to put the engine’s exhaust system. “It’s crunch time,” says Dietrich.

And the work won’t end after Oshkosh. Terrafugia wants to deliver the first Transition to a customer by the end of 2009 and go into large-scale production by 2012. If you were just building a new type of plane or a new type of car, that schedule would be ambitious enough. But the Transition is both—and if, as the company intends, pilots are to land the vehicle on an airport runway, fold up the wings, and tool right out onto public highways, then this hybrid-of-a-different-color will have to meet federal standards for both aviation safety and highway safety.

Which means going through the demanding certification processes set up by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Then there are problems like building fail-safe folding wings that can be verifiably locked into flying position; making the vehicle light enough not only to fly, but to qualify as a Special Light-Sport Aircraft (of which more below); working with insurance companies to create a new kind of policy combining the accident insurance required for automobiles with the hull and liability insurance required for airplanes; and finding new investors with the stomach for the kinds of risks Terrafugia is taking.

In other words, there are a thousand practical obstacles to achieving the flying-car dreams Deitrich says he’s had since he decided to become an aerospace engineer at the age of 8—-to say nothing of actually making a bit of money along the way. “The old joke is that the best way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a large one,” says Dietrich. But while he admits that building a plane that you can also drive “sounds off the wall,” he says “there is a real business case for investing in its success. I’m personally invested, as are a lot of the people here. I don’t see any way we’re not going to get this done.”

Terrafugia CEO Carl DietrichThere’s plenty of reason to take Dietrich seriously. The 30-year-old earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, and was awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2006 in recognition of his groundbreaking designs, including a desktop-sized fusion reactor, a pumpless rocket engine, and a blast-safe pick for removing land mines. Dietrich put the prize money into Terrafugia, which he co-founded with fellow MIT aero-astro grads Samuel Schweighart and Anna Mracek (now his wife) and two former MBA students from MIT’s Sloan School. Their plan to manufacture a road-ready airplane was the runner-up in the business venture category of the 2006 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition—winning the company a $10,000 check that still hangs on the wall of Terrafugia’s “prototype development facility,” a modest space formerly used to manufacture garage doors.

But prizes alone don’t guarantee success. Nor do cool prototypes (though Terrafugia started generating orders as soon as it showed its first folding wing model at Oshkosh in 2006). To succeed as a business, you need a real market. And the key to Terrafugia’s entire business plan was … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Ben

    I’m amazed at how many of you there are that just don’t get it. I understand somewhat the non-flying non-airplane owning group that can’t imagine the logistics of going places in a personal airplane. I own a small 4-seater plane and rarely drive any distance more than 100 miles. But it is a big hassle to arrange rental cars everywhere I go, and often can’t get one at the time or place I need one, not to mention the cost. I agree my airplane costs me over $100/hr to operate, but most of that cost would be eliminated with the Transition, (hangar, non-LSA maintenance, etc.) and I undoubtedly would fly many more hours, further reducing the “hourly” cost. We all own cars and I don’t know anyone who actually figures out the cost per mile, adding up ALL their car expenses and dividing it by the mile. I know that the transition would be hands down the most economical way to travel by air!
    Why is everyone so worried about damage to the vehicle on the road? how often do you all get it accidents? I’ve been driving for the last 10 years and never gotten a scratch on my car…and if it does happen, isn’t that what insurance is for???

  • Ben

    I’m amazed at how many of you there are that just don’t get it. I understand somewhat the non-flying non-airplane owning group that can’t imagine the logistics of going places in a personal airplane. I own a small 4-seater plane and rarely drive any distance more than 100 miles. But it is a big hassle to arrange rental cars everywhere I go, and often can’t get one at the time or place I need one, not to mention the cost. I agree my airplane costs me over $100/hr to operate, but most of that cost would be eliminated with the Transition, (hangar, non-LSA maintenance, etc.) and I undoubtedly would fly many more hours, further reducing the “hourly” cost. We all own cars and I don’t know anyone who actually figures out the cost per mile, adding up ALL their car expenses and dividing it by the mile. I know that the transition would be hands down the most economical way to travel by air!
    Why is everyone so worried about damage to the vehicle on the road? how often do you all get it accidents? In the last 10 years of driving I haven’t been in an accident…and if it does happen, isn’t that what insurance is for???

  • http://www.strongware.com/dragon Richard A. Strong

    You are cordially invited to see my flying car project at my website,
    http://www.strongware.com/dragon .
    You can see a video of the full-size mockup model I built.

  • christopher

    hi my name is christopher,am from nigerian am a student to be an earonuatic eng please i will like to know the easyway to take to get my admission or tranfer into uc college.
    thanks
    emal…. walechristopher@yahoo.com

  • http://www.rox.com.br aluguel de carros

    EAA is right in my back yard. Do you know if they completed in time for the event?

  • ing.raul ramos prudencio

    quisiera saber mas sobre este diseño creo se podria perfeccionar

  • James Peter

    I have to say that it’s about time. I am a student pilot as well as a potential investor in the Terrafugia Transition. I have been waiting for this for my whole life. I only wish that the transition was completely electric, or lithium ion battery operated. After all, the first vehicles were electric and not gas powered in the early 1880′s. I know it’s hard to believe, yet very true. I believe the transition will become more eco friendly. I guess we cant get everything over night. Or can we?

  • Dana Christie

    Hi – I was just wondering if the gentleman who is making a car that flies could give me some info. I am a teacher for gifted and talented students and am trying to make such a car, but need serious help. Thanks, Dana Christie

  • Kerry Peters

    I saw the mockup of this vehicle at Oshkosh 2008. As a pilot, aircraft homebuilder, and working engineer with degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, I have to say that this design is not one I would want to fly. It is overweight and underpowered as an aircraft. The combination of low power and high wing loading makes for a flying machine with very little operating envelope. The single engine pusher configuration uses a small diameter propeller with a long driveshaft. This configuration will have critical speed problems, and the prop will have to run at high rpm to get any decent thrust. This will be very noisy. As a car, this vehicle might be OK, but with no more utility than a Smart Car and not nearly as easy to park.

  • Phil

    I haven’t seen any mention of the fact that the placement of the rear wheels/landing gear seems problematic for the takeoff and landing phase.

    Having the wheels (rotation point) so far aft of the center of pressure/lift of the wings requires that a much greater airspeed be gained before rotation. I believe their website said Vr was 70 kts…much more than if the wheels were more centrally located (as is the case with most tricycle gear aircraft). As an example, think of trying to lift 20 lbs in your hand, versus 20 lbs on the end of an out-stretched hockey stick. The amount of lift required to cause rotation is considerable. Once rotation happens – the relatively high airspeed would translate into an excessive nose up attitude…who knows where it would go from there; gross over-correction and nose dive or perhaps a stall. Perhaps the canard on the nose helps to over come this in some way.

    Then as you touch down in the flared attitude, your rear wheels, being the point of rotation, would cause the nose to come crashing down on the runway. In a typical Cessna 172, the best practice is to keep the nose off the pavement for as long as possible. I’m pretty sure that would be very hard to do in the Transition.

    Anyway, those are just my thoughts from seeing the photos, videos and taking a few flights in the X-plane model they have for download on their website. I do not have my PhD in aero/astro-whatever, just a CPL and half an instructor rating.

  • Jeff

    Can you imagine the average selfish, cell-phone distracted moron trying to handle one of these clunkers at low altitude or near power lines? Now let’s add five hundred more people to the same general airspace and see what sort of nightmare we have. Design issues notwithstanding, the underlying reason that flying cars are a bad idea is that most people do not have the focus or the discipline to be pilots. The average driver safety manual is only about 60 pages long, and they can’t even be bothered to learn those rules.

    The mag-lev cars from the movie “Minority Report” are a more practical idea than this.

  • Lyle

    I think this is a great idea, although it may not be practical today. It is forward thinkers such as this who have made this country great, and I salute Mr. Dietrich and his team for the effort. If I had an extra $200,000 to spend, I would buy one!

  • Lakers

    I fell in love with the Merlin 300 back in the early 80′s and I would still love to see that aircraft make it into production. The VTOL made it seem just about perfect and the ease of flying it seemed too good to be true, and I guess that it just may be. It just looked so aerodynamic it looked like something from the future and I guess that the future just aint here yet. Bummer….

  • SUSAN

    I want one. We have a business that requires alot of flights. I hate the hassle of commercial flight. This is an affordable way to do business. There is a small airport next to my house for landing and take off.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/2008/05/08/from-the-runway-to-the-road-terrafugia-redefines-the-flying-car-make-that-drivable-airplane/ andrew

    this sucks because if you wreck you die and i hope you have ejectable seats

  • siddharth desai

    this is a good project but what about success?it can projected copter concept instead of plane straight take of vertically and land vartically.no airstrip required and also use as car on road.it can float on water like hydrofill.three concepts in one kind of light vehicle.possible on air theory or technology with out using any type fuel but with elctromagnate system.how?contact me

  • http://www.greatestate.com P. from Weston MA

    If the autopilot could fly itself you wouldn’t have to worry about people talking on their cellphones…

  • http://www.leespring.com Plastics Springs

    Keep dreaming and inventing! Good work.

  • http://www.webservice.ro WebService: Web Design Company

    Beautiful post. Keep up inventing. This is the only way people will evolve.

  • http://www.myefact.com Patrick from Paperless Office

    As many people mentioned above, this is really much more of a driveable plane than a flying car– the Jetsons are not here quite yet!

  • http://www.wire-spring.net lily

    hmmm,seems magnificent,i suppose it will need good springs to confirm flying car’s qualilty. see http://www.wire-spring.net to get more.

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