Can flying cars finally take off?

One Massachusetts start-up will showcase its first test flight next month.

By Cyrus Farivar
Published October 17, 2008 9:51AM (EDT)

As I was poking around the Internet the other day, I came across this big feature in this month's issue of Popular Science magazine: "The Flying Car Gets Real."

Really? Flying cars? Like in "The Jetsons" and "Blade Runner"? One that I conceivably zoom down my street in and pull a Doc Brown at the end of "Back to the Future" in? Well, sort of.

It turns out that the Terrafugia Transition isn't going to be taking to the skies from a short runway the length of a city street anytime soon -- rather, the company flips the familiar moniker "flying car" on its head, calling it a "roadable aircraft." Still, the company's MIT alumni founders seem to have come up with the most measured and thought-out approach to building a car that happens to have the ability to fly (or, if you prefer, a plane that happens to have the ability to drive on city streets and when its wings are folded, park in your garage).

Here's the big idea, as Popular Science's Gregory Mone explains:

[Terrafugia co-founder Carl] 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.

But better yet, this plane is designed to fly on regular unleaded fuel -- imagine pulling up to your local gas station in one of these! -- and thanks to a new 2004 FAA rule, the Transition is also designed as a "light sport" plane, and will require 20 hours, or half as many flight training hours, as were previously needed.

But here's the thing that the PopSci article only mentions in passing: This has been tried. Many times. In fact, the idea started not long after the Wright Brothers took to the sky, and was first patented 90 years ago.

Essentially, without my having any expertise in auto mechanics or aerodynamics, it seems that there are two big problems to designing a real flying car, despite the fact that USA Today recently counted no less than five companies working on this problem. (Wikipedia counts 12.) And despite nearly a century of attempts, no one has come up with a sustainable, viable solution to this problem.

The major one is the weight and safety problem. As IEEE's Spectrum put it so succinctly in its January 2007 issue: "Basically, a car is safer and more stable when it's heavier, while a plane flies better when it's lightweight."

PopSci also notes:

To qualify as "light sport," the Transition will have to weigh around 1,300 pounds. That's 500 pounds less than a Smart car, but the Transition will be as long as a Suburban and, in places, just as tall. That calls into question whether it can survive a strong breeze, never mind a head-on collision with an SUV. In trying to be both an automobile and an aircraft, the Transition could wind up a mediocre version of both. "You look at the set of rules for designing a car and those for an airplane, and they're not all that similar," says Virginia Tech University aerospace engineering professor James Marchman, who in 1999 led a yearlong academic project to design a roadable aircraft.

Dietrich believes his design circumvents those rules. Take the assumption that only heavy cars are stable. With a low center of gravity, a long, wide wheelbase, a center of mass close to the front, and the canard wing, which generates downforce, Dietrich says that the featherweight Transition will stay glued to the pavement.

Spectrum -- whose headline reads: "Loser: Grounded " -- points out that even a Mini Cooper weighs twice as much as the Transition. That's doesn't even take into account the fact that "its folded wings would create mammoth blind spots on a vehicle the length of a large pickup truck and would be easy targets for fender benders."

Ana Mracek Dietrich, the COO of Terrafugia, wrote me in an e-mail that the choice of materials would be what makes the Transition truly safe.

"As for crash safety, composite safety cages and crumple zones (both of which the Transition (R) employs) have been shown to be safer than the traditional steel in use in cars today," she wrote. "Their higher cost is the only real barrier to the more widespread use of these materials. The Transition (R) is designed to withstand the most stringent of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests. Light does not have to mean less safe."

PopSci is reporting that the first test flight will come next month. Assuming all goes well, the 10 employees can start delivering the Transitions sometime in late 2009 or early 2010.

The other main issue? The cost. Right now, a Transition is priced at $194,000, but  as PopSci points out: "You could buy a Lexus and a little Cessna for the same price, but if that's how you think, you're not one of Terrafugia's customers." Its sticker price is currently nearly double that of the upper limit of most light-sport aircraft.

I'm still pretty skeptical that this effort will, ahem, get off the ground. But I'm sure lots of folks said the same thing about Orville and Wilbur back in the day, too.

Cyrus Farivar

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