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

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fly through clouds. A visual-flight-rules-only, or VFR, pilot can only fly on 40 to 60 percent of the days in a year. But if the Transition allows you to drive on 98 percent of days, then there is a huge new level of flexibility and freedom.

Is the Transition more sensitive to side gusts than your car? Absolutely, it is. Quite a bit more. Does that mean it’s dangerous? No, it means the operator has to be aware of the limitations of the vehicle. And pilots have it drilled into them that airplanes are very different from cars and have much stricter limitations on when and how you can operate them. That’s part of the licensing and certification process for owning and operating an aircraft. And we will be incorporating a significant amount of training with this vehicle.

X: If you can afford a Transition, you can afford both a real plane and a rental car.

CD: Right. Some people also comment that, “For this price I could buy an old Cessna and a nice car, so what’s the advantage?” The advantage of the Transition over an airplane and a car is that you only have your car at one airport. If you fly your plane to a different airport, you don’t have your car.

Terrafugia’s Transition Takes OffSure, you could buy a fleet of Yugos and put them at airports all over New England. But there is a balance somewhere. There are some pilots who do have a couple of cars, if they commonly commute between two specific airports. Obviously, this might not be the vehicle for them. But most of the time, if you are flying, you want to go someplace new. And two-thirds of the airports out there don’t have rental car facilities. And if you do encounter weather on your way to where you’re going, the Transition is the only vehicle that allows you do divert to the nearest airport, fold up your wings, and keep going. For a lot of general aviation pilots, a vehicle that is able to fold its wings and drive on the road actually does make sense. We can look at our own order book and see that there are people who want this badly enough to put down money for it.

X: Even a small amount of road damage from fender-benders, potholes, rocks, and the like could make flying dangerous—or at least make it necessary to do a tedious inspection before flying again.

CD: Should you find yourself in a situation where you’re parked somewhere and somebody backs up their car into your vehicle, it’s not going to render the vehicle un-airworthy. That’s where we are spending a lot of our intellectual resources—on making the vehicle really robust to the abuses you may encounter when you’re driving. And that’s a lot of what we’re seeking patent protection for—things like the deformable, aerodynamic bumper on the canard, and the elevator in the back [that] is also a deformable bumper. If somebody is parallel parking and they nudge you, they are not going to destroy your vehicle.

These things are incredibly important when you’re talking about insurance costs. That’s another part of making this practical—keeping the insurance costs down. It is an expensive vehicle, so it’s going to cost a lot more than a car to insure. But we’ve been talking with Avemco, which does aviation insurance, about the features that we’re putting into this vehicle to protect it in a road environment. I don’t want to quote numbers, but we expect to be able to insure this for the same as you would pay to insure another aircraft, despite the fact that there is more exposure.

Also, you always need to pre-flight inspect an aircraft. If you are trusting your life to this vehicle, you are always going to want to inspect it before you go flying in it. That is part of normal aircraft operations. That means walking around the vehicle and visually and tactilely checking out all of the surfaces. We have made it particularly easy to know when things are in place or not in place, and if they’re not in place, then you know you need to take it to an airframe or power-plant mechanic to get a repair.

X: Anything that has to pass highway safety tests will be way too heavy to fly, and anything that is light enough to fly will be incapable of surviving a roadway crash.

CD: Well, I would ask people who say that to visit us at our next trade show and give us the opportunity to show them how we are doing what they say is impossible. Specifically, we are using very advanced carbon-fiber construction techniques that give us inherent strength-to-weight advantages over … Next Page »

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

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