In Defense of the Drivable Airplane—Terrafugia CEO Responds to Legions of Doubters

We know our readers love to hear about radical new technologies and the business opportunities they create. So we weren’t shocked when our article last week about the Transition, the drivable airplane from Woburn, MA-based Terrafugia, turned up on Slashdot and brought more visitors to the site than any Xconomy story since our launch last summer (and temporarily brought down our Web server in the process).

But we were a bit surprised by the comments that readers left here and at Slashdot—the majority of which were critical, even dismissive, of Terrafugia’s concept as a viable business proposition. Given that “flying cars” have been fodder for sci-fi movies, cartoons, and Popular Mechanics covers since the 1930s, it’s understandable that some people feel jaded about the latest promises for airplane-automobile hybrids. But whether or not you’re personally interested in traveling in an airplane with folding wings that doubles as a road-worthy automobile, quite a few private pilots are—as the three-year waiting list for a Transition demonstrates.

Judging from the comments last week, many commenters hadn’t fully absorbed the factual points in the article (to put it politely). Others seemed to feel that because the concept of a car-plane hybrid has been on the drawing boards for so long, it must be inherently flawed. But if you hear out the prize-winning aerospace engineers at Terrafugia, you’ll begin to understand why they feel so certain that current-day materials and electronics make a roadable aircraft—one that’s safe both to fly and to drive—a feasible idea.

In the spirit of friendly debate, we boiled down the hundreds of comments to a dozen basic criticisms, then asked Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s CEO and co-founder, to respond to each one. The text of our conversation follows. Please keep in mind that the questions below represent our summaries of the most commonly registered criticisms. They don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Xconomy or its editors.

Xconomy: Thanks for speaking with us again so soon. The first and most repeated criticism of Terrafugia’s work that we heard from readers last week went like this: “Just look how many bad drivers there are on the roads. Being a pilot takes much more skill than driving. So just imagine the havoc if lots of drivers had flying cars.”

Carl Dietrich, CEO and co-founder of TerrafugiaCarl Dietrich: This is one of the most common misconceptions about the Transition. People assume that since we’re building a roadable aircraft it must be a flying car, and therefore will be sold to everybody who drives a car, and that’s just not the case. The vehicle will be sold to licensed private pilots and sport pilots, and these people will have gone through significant training in order to operate a vehicle like this. And they will hold a completely different type of license [from a driver’s license]. It’s not something where there is going to be one of these things in every garage. It will be a rarity to see one of these vehicles for the foreseeable future. So you’re not going to turn around one day all of a sudden and see the skies blackened with thousands of Transitions. The real market for these vehicles is solidly in the hundreds of units per year. For cars, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of units. It’s a very different scale. This is an airplane first, and not a replacement for anybody’s car.

X: Criticism number two: Light aircraft have a higher fatality rate per passenger mile than cars.

CD: The absolute number of accidents and fatalities in light aircraft is substantially smaller, of course, than in automobiles. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were correct that accidents and fatalities per passenger mile are somewhat higher. But the things we’re doing to address those issues are what I think is important. There is a market for general aviation, so the question is what can we do to make it better, to make it safer. And I believe we’re doing a lot to make it safer.

Specifically, not only do we have this rocket-deployed parachute that can … Next Page »

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

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