Terrafugia Unveils New TF-X Project, Talks Future of Flying Cars

Yes, this company makes a flying car. And apparently, it works—at least the prototype does. Now how about this, a little further down the road: a self-flying car.

Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. But what if the technology were feasible?

Here’s the thing: it could be. In fact, some observers predict we’ll have self-flying commuter vehicles before we have fully self-driving cars (like the Google car). This won’t happen overnight—both technologies are at least 10 to 15 years away from prime time—but if you think about it, commercial airplanes pretty much fly themselves for most of the trip. And flying vehicles don’t face the same hazards that cars do—pedestrians, other cars, traffic signals, bad roads—though they do have their own safety issues (like falling from the sky).

With that backdrop, a Boston-area company is trying to seize momentum in the global race to reinvent personal aviation. Terrafugia, based in Woburn, MA, has unveiled a radical concept for its second product. Called TF-X, the futuristic vehicle will be a four-seat, hybrid-electric flying car, with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities (see image above). And—oh yeah—it will pretty much fly itself.

“You’ll tell it where you want to go, and it sends you on that course and can automatically compensate for changes in conditions,” says Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia’s co-founder, CEO, and chief technology officer (now that’s a startup). “This could open up personal aviation for all of humanity,” he says.

Let’s back up for a minute. Terrafugia was founded by MIT grads in 2006 with the grand idea of developing the first commercially available flying car—they originally called it a “roadable aircraft.” (My colleague Wade Roush first wrote about the company in 2008.) That first product, called Transition, was designed for private pilots to be able to land on an airport runway, fold up the wings in less than a minute, and drive right out onto public roads.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. After seven years of work, Terrafugia has yet to ship its first product. Chalk it up to many issues: tweaking the technical design; clearing regulatory hurdles in both the automotive and aviation industries; and running lean. Still, the firm has come a long way on just over $10 million in financing from angel investors (plus $1.25 million in defense money).

“It wasn’t getting it into the air that was the hard part,” Dietrich says, referring to the flight tests. “It’s the stuff after. I do believe it will pay off in the end.”

Terrafugia has finished flight tests on two prototype Transition vehicles, and is in the process of crash-testing the design (on the ground) with a big-company partner. The Woburn firm currently has more than a hundred pre-orders for the craft, at $279,000 a pop. That will add up to over $27 million in sales—once the vehicles are delivered. That will be sometime between January 2015 and March 2016, Dietrich says. (The date has been pushed back several times.)

On a recent visit to the company, Dietrich showed me the Transition prototype and its cockpit controls, while a small team of engineers tested a (very loud) engine outdoors (see photos).

As for most startups, the key for Terrafugia is to survive long enough to get to market and make an impact. It also needs to lay out a clearer vision for its future—which is why it’s talking now, even with customers still waiting. “The company made it through a really challenging economic time,” Dietrich says. “We’re getting a lot more investment interest now.”

Indeed, Terrafugia will need to raise more money to reach its goals. The firm is actively expanding its current staff of about 22 people, mostly engineers. “We’re looking to accelerate completion of the Transition. We’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Dietrich says. “As Transition work wraps up, we’ll be moving our guys over to TF-X.”

So what about that new design? None of it is … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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