The Terrafugia Transition: the Future of the Flying Car

About a year ago, the UK’s The Engineeer reported that the newest hope for a Future Filled With Flying Cars, the Terrafugia Transition, was likely headed for airports in the United States. It had just cleared a major regulatory hurdle in the United States when the FAA had allowed manufacturers an extra exemption in their attempt to qualify in the “light sport” category of aircraft.

That’s important why? Because aircraft in the light sport category only require about 20 hours of training to fly. It means that craft need to be under a 1,320-pound limit, but the FAA unexpectedly gave Terrafugia an extra exemption of 110 pounds. That means the folding-wing craft will probably qualify. But according to an article today in the Daily Mail, shortly after that story things looked dicey, when the FAA requested changes amounting to something like $20 million.

Well, the U.S. military came to the rescue, inveigling the Boston-based Terrafugia into its $60 million plan to develop a flying Hummer. (I’ve been working on that for years, too, but the damn flight attendants…scratch that, no, no, I just can’t go there.) Once the FAA approves the Transition, it’ll be a small matter for the European authorities to clear it, too, since they tend to follow the FAA’s lead on small craft.

Anyway, the Transition is far more promising than this bizarre vehicle, which showed at the Bangalore airshow…and appears to be an economy car that someone staple-gunned a wing on the top of.

Importantly, though, the Transition isn’t the sort of fly-by-wire thing that was trumpeted at the end of last century by Davis, California-based company Moller, which planned its Skycar to be flown on an automatic system that guaranteed cars wouldn’t run into each other in the air. That proved out of reach, along with some of Moller’s other technology — and Moller declared bankruptcy a few years back. By all accounts, the Moller Skycar is dead, and it looks like the Terrafugia Transition assumes its Jetsons crown. In general, the flying car category is the resting place of many wacky designs, as well as fantastically bizarre claims from “experts” — like those from NASA who said, in the press for a 2007 design competition, that “45% of all miles traveled” in the future might be by “personal air vehicle,” or ultra-small plane (aka “flying car.”)

The short version? We won’t be zipping around city skies any time soon or flipping bitches between the Twin Peaks TV antennas. The Transition is flown just like a light sport plane; the wings fold up in 15 seconds at the touch of a button and you can stash it in your garage or drive it on the freeway. It needs about 1,500 feet to take off, but in the U.S. it would be unlawful to fly it randomly off the freeway.

The original article at the Engineer was saying the plane/car would likely go on sale for about $194,000, but the Daily Mail is now saying it’ll be closer to $250,000 in the U.S. That may sound like a chunk of change — it does to me — but it’s actually not completely out of step with what a new small plane costs nowadays, and most small planes don’t hit the highway unless it’s in a bad way. A new single-engine Cessna, for instance, starts in the low $100,000s, though you can get one used in good condition for a heck of a lot less than that. The Terrafugia Transition is said to get up to about 42 miles to the gallon on the ground. The Daily Mail says it drinks high-octane gas, but I’m not clear on exactly how high-octane. Usually I would assume that means AvGas, the typical fuel for small planes in the United States. But it looks, from the photo above, like it actually means straight-up road gasoline, srsly.

The advantages of a flying car over a light airplane are many, and will be obvious to anyone who’s ever flown in a small plane to an airport and then had to arrange ground transportation; getting a cab to come out to the kind of places they tend to stash recreation-friendly small-plane airports is sometimes pretty challenging. It’s one of the (many) reasons seaplanes are so popular places like Alaska, where one can tether a plane to your dock and not have to worry about finding an airport.

Plus, from below, it looks like a hammerhead shark:


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One comment on “The Terrafugia Transition: the Future of the Flying Car
  1. The Terrafugia haflying car has been (as you note) “coming soon” for quite a while.

    Ironically, Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites have just announced their contender for the first “roadable” aircraft. I think anyone who follow aviation would agree that when Burt puts his mind to something, it happens: want to fly around the world un-refueled? No problem: Voyager can do that! Want to go to space? No problem: SpaceShipOne can do that! Etc.

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