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

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 »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Ken Ohrn

    These concepts pop up every so often, and have never materialized. Why? Because flying an airplane is much more difficult than driving, and much more unforgiving of errors and inattention. A few pilots may look at this, but my guess is that it’s neither a good car nor a good airplane.

  • chil

    This gives a new dimension to the word “overtaking” on the highway :-)

  • Alex

    Right Ken. What a system like this needs is a HUD that draws the flight path as a road so the operator (I won’t call them pilot) has as much of an analog to driving on a road as possible. It literally needs to be point-and-click (point your destination on a map, and click “go”). The systems required to bring that to reality exist, but would need to be implemented on a massive scale. All of these vehicles would need to essentially be networked together. This is the only way to build in the collision avoidance, emergency aborts, way-point navigation seemlessly, safely, and redundantly. Once that happens, massive adoption is feasible.

  • hilather

    wonder how many miles per gallon it gets…

  • Luis García Pimentel

    The idea sounds cool, but it seems to me that you are making a clumsy airplane and a very clumsy car for the price if a nice little airplane and a very nice car. Also I wouldn’t a car crash on the hybrid because surely even a small one would render it not airworthy, and ultimately useless.

  • Michael Lomker

    The obvious use for this is the ability to ‘hanger’ your airplane in your second garage stall rather than pay for space at an airport.

    There are also pilot communities in remote areas where people land on a private airstrip and then hanger their plane at their home. An aircraft like this would make that awful easy.

    I think the price that they are envisioning is rather optimistic. Most small planes with glass cockpits are more like $300k. I’d be shocked if this price doesn’t go up substantially–they are going to spend big bucks getting this plane through the many approval processes.

  • Tim

    The majority of the population can’t quite grasp the concept of turn signals, let alone flying.

    We’ve got a long way to go before the intelligence level of US drivers increases and the ignorance level decreases before we have flying cars.


  • I agree with luis, it seems like the design compromises to make it driveable would impede its performance as an aircraft a lot. Why not make a VTOL plane you can land in your driveway instead.

  • Ryan

    Just because someone got a degree from MIT, doesn’t mean they know their ass from their elbow in the business world.

  • I do fly and well while interesting this Idea is not going to “fly”.

    You can’t make a vtol because
    one: thats a lot harder.
    two: there are rules that would keep you from landing that plane in your driveway.
    three: all vtols are loud and expensive to fly.

    I would like a car/plane but the thing is all the things that make for a save and drivable car makes for a crappy plane.

    Air bags, bumpers, shocks and springs, side impact protection, safety glass.

    All of these things are for the most part not used in a plane and so flying all this crap around town makes for a heavy slow and expensive aircraft.

    Also remember roads are crappy and it would be very easy for you to damage this plane car just driving it around town.
    If you didn’t notice that damage before you took off you could in in for a world of dead.

    I’m not saying it would not be cool to have a plane that I could fly and land at my local airport and drive home to work.
    It would be like major cool but reality says its not very practical.

  • Dan

    This will be a great feat if they pull it off, and when they fail, and they probably will, boeing, airbus, united technologies and probably a few other large aerospace companies will buy all of their IP and use the project for military applications and we will never hear about it again.

    Why don’t people try to improve the ICE as opposed to making up new and useless applications for it.

  • Jeremy Friesner

    For the half-dozen of you who read the article and STILL don’t get it, let me reiterate their point:

    This product is not a flying car. It is not being marketed to automobile drivers who also want to fly. It is being marketed to pilots who also want to drive.

    So enough already with the “OMG every Homer Simpson will buy one and crash” posts.

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  • David

    I think it’ll succeed (if at all) as a luxury item, like a ferrari or any other sports car. I could also see a ferry service (with driver provided) that would take advantage of the strengths of the vehicle while streamlining costs (say maintenance, fuel and license maintenance).

  • AdamWho

    This looks like some of the startups I have worked for!

  • thomas

    Truth is… no-one over the age of 10 wants such a vehicle. It offers little or no practical use for business or pleasure, regardless of how technically sound its design. ie. there’s no market. The aerocar of the fifties had its own TV show (Bob Cummings) and no-one wanted it then, as I strongly suspect no-one wants it now.

  • This is a pretty awesome idea. I know this sort of thing has been in the works a long, long time. But maybe it’ll be here just in time for fossil fuels to run out. :D

  • Jerry

    Make it fly… maybe.

    Getting it road-licensed approved, pollution approved AND flight approved….????

    Yeah, gimme a call when that happens.

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  • Mike

    Most commenters just don’t get that this is an airplane first and a car second (i.e. they didn’t actually comprehend the article). They don’t want to make something which can take off or land on the highway and keep driving, although you could imagine someone doing exactly that. I could certainly imagine people who owned this airplane landing on a highway and driving to their destination, or even taking off from a highway, though I bet that both possibilities are both dangerous (due to traffic) and illegal (except in case of emergency).

    It might not make the best airplane or the best car, but it is innovative in use of a single engine to drive both and modern technologies to make both kinds of vehicle in one. The potential to have an airplane that also drives on roads is great. It’s like my convertible car-seat/airplane-seat/stroller. While getting off a flight, with my son asleep, I can carry him in the seat to the jetway and unfold the wheels and push him without waking him. It’s a great convenience. When I get to the car, I fold up the wheels, and plug in the seat belt, and he’s still asleep.

    This plane allows you to drive to the airport, fly most of the way to the destination, and land at the destination airport, and drive to the destination. GPS with airports is probably a good idea to help navigate to the correct airport.

    This may not make the best car or the best plane, but a streetworthy/highway capable aircraft certainly would be nice for long distance travel with only one vehicle. If it were legal to take off and land on long, flat stretches of highway with little traffic, it would also make for a good way to avoid airports. Maybe if there was a market for enough of these, there would be “landing strips” along side highways dedicated for this.

    For now, it’s just a concept. There was a time about 100 years ago, when the flying machine was also just a concept.

  • Tom Ewing

    This could make a good air ambulance if large enough. I don’t know how much air ambulances are used world wide, but in Australia they are a used to evacuate people from remote areas, with the aircraft normally landing on straight stretches of road or farmland. If the plane could then drive to the site of the accident and back to take off, it could accelerate evacuation. Then when back in the city the plane could drive directly to the hospital.

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  • What has been and still is the missing link in the flying car, is hands off computer controlled navigation. Most people cant drive in two dimensions much less 3. We certainly have the technology to build a working flying car but if you put them in the hands of consumers they’d be falling out of the sky left and right. What we need is the sensors and software that would allow some drunken moron to hop into one tell it where he’s going and have it get him there without incident. Thats my bit…

  • bawaji

    I’d rather have a personal jetpack to carry me. That way, the fuel will be used to carry my weight alone and not my weight + weight of car-which-is-also-an-airplane.

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  • Sean DALY

    There are many unimagined possibilities for a drivable airplane but I think its greatest advantage would be its small storage footprint. For example it could be stored in a garage and towed on a trailer by vacationers who want to fly around at their destination (a scenario which would sidestep road insurance and damage issues). Some travellers could find it useful on one-way trips, flying in and having it trucked home. Tired pilots would appreciate driving in and out of a hangar (or an airport parking spot) instead of pushing. The possibility of avoiding flying in difficult weather conditions would be a major advantage for casual pilots.

  • peer

    The roads are cramped with cars, the air is filled with planes, climate is changing and one million people killed every year from cars (not counted the death from cancer from pollution)

    So the big innovation is not a driveable plane. The big innovation is to make people finally accept bicycle, train and bus as faster, cheaper, easier and healthier alternative.

    The big innovations happens in the brain :) To see what you do wrong and do better in the future.

    Bicycles can save the world. Bikeplanes dont.

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  • Wesley Parish

    A flying car/driveable airplane is an addictive problem. I put some serious thought into it back in the eighties.

    The two biggest problems I found were – making suspension work as needed on the road while still being able to absorb the shock of landing and not contributing immensely to drag while in flight; and finding tires that had enough tread to avoid aquaplaning on the ground while not being too stiff and overweight for flight.

    Gearing for flight versus road was simple by comparison; flight versus road control systems likewise – once you factor in electronics, it’s not so hard.

  • Ed

    Simple economics will always keep this very old dream from becoming widespread reality.

    My light aircraft costs me about $90 per hour to operate. At my destination I can rent a car for $40-50 or so per day (sometimes less), then leave it at the airport when I return home.

    Any parking lot accident or fender-bender will render the roadable aircraft unairworthy. If I ding a rental car, my insurance takes care of it, and I fly home anyway.

    Why would I pay many times too much to operate my aircraft in an enviroment where it is at extreme risk for very expensive damage?

    Yes, you can make an aircraft that can act as a car. You can make a car that can act as a boat. You can make an aircraft that floats. All these combinations involve compromises, so an amphibious car isn’t a very good boat or car, an airplane on floats is a lousy boat and a slow, heavy airplane, and a flying car or roadable aircraft isn’t very good in either realm.

    This idea, while appealing, will always be a novelty at most.

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  • There are too many ‘flying cars’… you can watch many of them here

    Personally, my favourite one is the The Horton, it needs no wings

  • gzuckier

    aside from any pros or cons of its own, this project is coming to fruition just in time for the inevitable phase out of fossil fuels, so he’d better design it to run on biodiesel, ethanol, or electricity.

  • Jon

    Edit see next post

  • Jon

    Brilliant in focus.

    I am in the business of doing the impossible for low cost. I make a good living doing this. Most folks just miss the obvious due to their personal society’s limitations.

    As far as a market. the fine folks commenting on this post just do not seem to understand markets. Few things are ubiquitous. Look at the wide variety of cars and of planes. Each serves a market. The overall follows a variation of a bell curve.

    Pick your spot on the curve and you will find a challenge.. and a reward. Both require skills.

    Few folks also seem to remember that many of the first cars were electric… and some with motors on each wheel which is currently being rediscovered as the best method.

    From that stage, the market continued talk with the supply and over time various configurations matched the situations of the times. Times,,,, they are achanging again.

    Oh,, by the way,,, cars were outlawed in some places because they disturbed the horses.

    I know of some things with regards to this model which will change. Let’s see if they listen to the market and if they keep going. It is pretty simple actually.

    If you want a way to quickly solve the adherence to crash regs, give a holler guys and I do believe I can point out the simple way this is done. It has been done before. The folks that run this website should be able to put us together.

    Have fun.


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  • Alex

    I think this is a neat idea. I’m an airline pilot, and have plenty of experience with the door to door time restraints of taking a small plane for recreational travel. This coming from a guy who would sell house and car for a Grumman Albatross decked out like an RV (as per Jimmy Buffet), but you could just get a plane with a fair amount of usable load and buy one of those foldable motorcycle/mopeds out there. Hehe.

  • nightgaunt

    It hasn’t been the technology so far that has hampered some people from obtaining a flying vehicle. It has been the FAA that so far won’t certifie any to fly. The Moller Skycar looks like the best bet that could approach the fanciful Jetson’s concept.
    Moller has been testing it and fine tuning it for the past decade. I have seen some of the tethered flight tests. It is a VTOL and isn’t a street vehicle.So it isn’t a convertable flying/driving car.I expect the rich and corporations to mainly get them to start.

  • Boby

    So great for future of movement, but still one how about the sky will be full of !!!!!

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  • Interesting concept, now if they can only fire this craft with hydrogen fusion, then they have something worthy of the attention of the masses.

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  • Gavan

    This Unit is a pusher prop Rotax engine design.

    First of all the idea is great. The reality of it is less than ideal.

    The Rotax is made for ultra lights and kit planes.

    To drive this light weight structure on a road would make it’s airframe shot after it hit one good pot hole.

    If it was a tubular type design for the fuselage then maybe. It’s a egg shell composite and light with limited structural integrity for on road use.

    Keep dreaming and invent a levitating Pulse Magnetron drive.

  • Ron Knapp

    How about some positive thinking. At least you are prepared to think outside the square and I can see a demand for a drive home aircraft.Accidental damage could be a problem on the road but how about a pre flight inspection and common sense.
    Gofor it! Noting ventured nothing gained!

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  • Bill

    This is neither a flyable car nor a drivable airplane.
    It is a death trap. I have enough avoidance problems with licensed pilots. What will they do when the engine fails at altitude..pull over to the shoulder?

  • DGate

    It seems we are facing the loss of personal mobility with energy costs rising dailey and this guy is proposing an air car??
    His time would be better utilized working on an efficient power plant for a ground based car before we all have to walk or bike never mind fly.

  • Mike McNicoll

    Your readers are understandably skeptical about the Transition. I started following the development progress of this vehicle in the fall of 2006. At that time the company claimed they would have their folding wing system on display in Oshkosh in 2007, their proof of concept (POC) vehicle would be on display at Oshkosh in 2008, they would fly the POC by the end of 2008, and they would make their first customer delivery by the end of 2009. Today, more than eighteen months later, they are right on track.

    Not only did they display the folding wing system in Oshkosh, they cycled the wing over 500 times without a failure, simulating about five years usage of the folding mechanism. I visited their facility in Woburn, Mass. and have seen the vehicle taking shape. I am confident they are still on schedule to fly the vehicle by the end of this year.

    I have been a pilot for over 20 years but had been losing interest in flying in recent years. The Terrafugia Transition has reinvigorated me. I am one of the 40 or so pilots that have reserved a delivery position and made a $7,400 deposit. More recently I invested in the company. I know there are, and will be, a lot of skeptics, but I am a believer. I hope to get my Transition by the spring of 2011 and can’t wait to fly and drive it.