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

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pilots who want to be more mobile once they land. “If you want to go skiing in Maine, you can just throw your skis in the back, fly up Saturday morning, drive to the resort, and be on the slopes by the afternoon,” says Dietrich. And if there happens to be a blizzard on Sunday, you won’t be stranded at the Bangor airport: you can just drive home under the storm.

But the company still has quite a few checklists to complete in order to get the Transition on the road—or into the air. After the team takes the proof-of-concept vehicle to Oshkosh, they have to make it airworthy.* Dietrich says they’re shooting for a maiden flight by the end of this year. Then the company will have to prove to federal officials that the vehicle’s carbon-composite safety cage, bumpers, crumple zones, and airbags will actually protect passengers if they get into a run-in with an SUV.

And ultimately, the Transition represents a new category of vehicle—so there will be an inevitable negotiation over which safety regulations and standards Terrafugia really has to meet. There’s a question, for example, over whether NHTSA will make Terrafugia add external side mirrors to the vehicle for visibility (Dietrich says they’d be un-aerodynamic) or whether the internal mirrors, video cameras, and LCD screens the company is building into the cockpit will do the trick.

The Terrafugia Transition folds its wings…But despite the uncertainties, some 40 customers have already ponied up the refundable $7,400 deposit for the Transition, taking up all of Terrafugia’s planned manufacturing capacity through 2011. The final price for the vehicle hasn’t been determined, but it probably won’t be below $150,000, Dietrich says. That’s obviously expensive compared to most cars—even the famed electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster, costs only $109,000—but it won’t set you back nearly as much as a basic Piper Arrow (list price: $323,850).

Terrafugia closed its first investment round in December 2006 and has raised about $1.2 million to date, according to Dietrich. “We’re probably going to be looking to raise another $1 million to $2 million in the not-too-distant future,” he says. Fundraising, not surprisingly, has been a challenge. “The first reaction every time is, ‘You want me to invest in what? A flying car?'” says Dietrich. But he hopes that problem will ease as more of the hardware comes together and the company has something more substantial than computer animations to show prospective investors.

“This has become an industry where you can go from a prototype to delivery in nine months,” he says. “That makes it investable, in the same way that you might invest in a group of engineers who want to bring a new software product to market. And when you list all the ways we could make this work—by partnering with or even selling to a larger airframe manufacturer, for example—you start to overcome people’s disbelief.”

The idea of a flying car that could lift drivers out of traffic jams will probably remain a standing joke—a monument to an antique brand of technological enthusiasm. But a drivable airplane is a different proposition. And it’s probably safe to say that Terrafugia has assembled more brainpower, and more MIT degrees, around that proposition than any previous organization. “I think this is a fantastic opportunity—not just from a business perspective and a career perspective, but to work on something where we could make history,” says Dietrich. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

*CORRECTION 5/8/08 9:55 a.m.: The first version of this story said that the proof-of-concept model of the Transition that Terrafugia is assembling now won’t be airworthy, and that a second version would complete the maiden flight. That was incorrect—Dietrich says the proof-of-concept version will be flyable.

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

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