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 built yet, but the vehicle concept includes a roomier interior than Transition (which only seats two), and a pretty striking liftoff and landing mechanism.
Like Transition, the TF-X will have normal-looking wings, but on the end of each wing will be a motorized pod that contains a helicopter-like propeller (see images below). The propellers will be activated on take-off and landing, but will be folded away at cruising speed.
Another big difference with the TF-X is that takeoff, landing, and driving on the ground will use an electric propulsion system, while long-range flying will use a gas turbine. Dietrich isn’t giving any numbers, but he says the new vehicle will be “significantly faster” in the air than Transition, and it will also be a lot heavier. (I’m guessing they’re shooting for over 200 mph in the air, faster than most helicopters.)
And about that vertical liftoff: you probably won’t be taking off from your driveway, or landing at the office. The vehicle will need a roughly 100-foot diameter of open space to take off. But that’s still more convenient than finding a runway.
Not surprisingly, plenty of companies around the world are working on vehicles with similar capabilities. Pipistrel, a light aircraft manufacturer in Slovenia, just unveiled a concept design for an electrically powered vertical-takeoff craft with eight propellers on two wings. AgustaWestland, a U.K.-based company, recently demonstrated an electric tilt-rotor aircraft called “Project Zero,” which has two large adjustable propellers embedded in its wings. And, perhaps most intriguing, Silicon Valley stealth startup Zee.Aero has a new patent for a “personal aircraft” that has vertical-lift rotors, tandem wings, and forward-thrust propellers. (There are some crazy rumors about who’s behind this company, but they are unsubstantiated.)
In any case, Terrafugia’s TF-X would be the only personal aircraft I’m aware of that could be drivable on roads. That also means in bad weather, when it’s dangerous to fly, Terrafugia’s vehicle gives its pilot the option to drive on the ground.
“As these vehicles get out there, it’s likely there will wind up being more and more little takeoff and landing zones,” Dietrich says. If all goes well and this sort of personal aviation becomes commonplace—a huge if, indeed—city parks, fields, and parking lots might set aside space for it, he says. (Imagine landing in Boston Common, folding up your wings, and parking in the garage underground.)
Listening to Dietrich, you start to realize the full scope of Terrafugia’s vision—but also the magnitude of its challenges.
Which brings us to the self-flying part. One of the main reasons Dietrich decided to pursue the TF-X project in the first place was the regulatory environment. In early 2012, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, which (among other things) gives the Federal Aviation Administration a green light to invest in new technologies, including next-generation air traffic control systems. One of the mandates, according to Dietrich: by 2020, all aircraft will be required to broadcast their GPS position and velocity to all other craft.
“I thought, ‘Holy cow, this infrastructure is really going to be there,’” he says. “This really does enable a semi-autonomous system to guide you where you need to go. The computer will have all that information that you don’t have [now] in the cockpit.”
So it sounds like the self-flying part of the vision is largely a software problem—albeit a big one. To sell it to the FAA, though, Terrafugia will need to position the technology as not just safe, but a way to improve upon current safety standards for light aircraft. (Autonomous military drones are one thing; personal aviation is another.)
That’s much easier said than done. “It’s an eight-to-10-year process,” Dietrich says, “but we believe it’s possible to increase the level of safety while simultaneously making it easier to operate an aircraft.”
At least one outside expert seems intrigued by the concept of TF-X. Greg Bowles, director of engineering and manufacturing for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, calls it “novel and exciting.” He adds that “the global authorities have been working to adapt regulations for future products such as the TF-X.”
If Terrafugia can meet those safety requirements, that could lead to a cascade of effects. If private planes are safer and easier to operate, Dietrich says, “we can put it within reach of a much broader segment of the population. Doing that, we open up the market.” With more demand, he says, the company (and others) could potentially use different manufacturing techniques, costs could go down, and the vehicle’s price tag could go down, further opening the market.
The potential impact on the economy? Dietrich quotes a study that says 127 million U.S. commuters spend 52 minutes a day in their cars driving at an average speed of 17 miles per hour. He says if all of them (hypothetically) commuted via TF-X, it would effectively inject $800 billion a year into the national economy, in terms of wages and productivity.
Meanwhile, the wait continues for the company’s first product, Transition (pictured in flight), to roll out. Dietrich’s team is currently consumed with what seem like minor details—how the airbags deploy, the exact position of the engine in the craft, and so forth. But it’s these details, he hopes, that will lead the vehicle to exceed customer expectations once it’s in their hands. And from there, maybe for the first time in a while, Dietrich seems completely convinced of the company’s bigger vision—and its roadmap to get there.
“It provides a new freedom that doesn’t exist today,” he says. “This sort of thing has the potential to be disruptive to personal transportation, to the automotive as well as the aviation industry.”
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