Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Flying Car Gets Real

The team at Terrafugia is about to fulfill the fantasy of every driver - pilot: a consumer vehicle that can take to the highways and the skies. All they have to do is finish the first one.

Transition is not a flying car. The vehicle, set to go on sale this year, will cruise smoothly on the road and through the sky. It will have four wheels, Formula One–style suspension, and a pair of 10-foot-wide wings that fold up when it switches from air to asphalt.

And when the engineers at Terrafugia in Woburn, Massachusetts, let me sit inside their just-finished proof-of-concept vehicle and grab the steering wheel, it’s easy to imagine piloting this thing up and out of traffic, into the open skies.But we’re not talking about a flying car.

The Transition is a “roadable aircraft.” The team makes this distinction clear in conversation, on Terrafugia T-shirts, and in big, blue letters on the side of the trailer outside their shop.The flying car has been a mainstay of our imagined transportation future for as long as there have been automobiles and airplanes: fanciful vehicles that promise to have us commuting like George Jetson. Scores of garage inventors have spent their lives creating detailed designs, scale models, even working prototypes.

In the 1950s, Molt Taylor, a former Navy pilot, flew a few versions of his Aerocar, an plane/car hybrid that attached to a separate, towable set of wings and a tail. But he couldn’t sign up enough customers to turn it into a business. Now, the people who are closest to making that dream real—putting a car in the air, whatever they call it—are about the least starry-eyed folks you could meet. Terrafugia co-founder Carl Dietrich, 31, winces at that idea.

“I’d hesitate to call any of us visionaries,” he says. “We’re engineers.” Clean Up: Marc Stiller sands a component while Carl Dietrich (kneeling) and Andrew Heafitz look on. John B. CarnettDietrich’s company isn’t hinging its plans on out-of-reach technology or infrastructure.

You won’t find any ducted fans or references to antigravity. He and his team are instead building a single-engine, rear-propeller airplane that just happens to be street-legal. They perfected the design in software simulators and are using materials proven in earlier vehicles.

The Transition will meet Federal Aviation Administration standards in airplane mode and satisfy National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the road. You’ll be able to take off only from a runway, and you’ll need a pilot’s license to do so.

If you’re stuck in traffic, you’ll remain stuck. As they say, a roadable aircraft. Unfortunately, that sober approach doesn’t make their task any easier. Dietrich’s team intends to manufacture and sell several hundred Transitions a year. That means doing things that no flying-car hopefuls before them ever have:

Build an aircraft that can take potholes and protect its occupants if it slams into a brick wall at 30 miles an hour. Do it cheaply and reliably, again and again. Score passing grades from all those federal agencies. Find someone to insure it.

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