Hang onto your Honda: Why the Terrafugia Transition won’t make flying cars mainstream

Terrafugia Transition Folded (Ramp Sky)

“If we’re living in the future, where’s my flying car?”

At the New York International Auto Show.

At least, that’s what Woburn, Massachusetts company Terrafugia wants people to think. Terrafugia is currently developing the Transition, a “roadable” personal aircraft that can literally fold up its wings and be driven on ordinary city streets. This week the company is taking the unusual step of marketing the Transition — at a base price of $279,000 — to automobile buyers rather than pilots. Terrfugia isn’t claiming the Transition is an ideal vehicle for everyday commuters, but the company has succeeded in generating some buzz that the Transition might be the vehicle that finally brings the much-loved science fiction concept of a flying car to the mainstream. And, for the class of folks who consider dropping half a million dollars or more on a supercar, the Transition might be a very appealing and somewhat inexpensive toy.

But we’re still a long way from the vision of bubblecars and highways in the sky popularized by The Jetsons. And the Transition isn’t going to get us any closer. Here’s why.

The Terrafugia Transition

Terrafugia Transition (Unfurl)

The Transition has been in development by a team of MIT-trained engineers since 2006. The goal is to create an affordable vehicle that can be used both on everyday roads and highways (and fit in standard parking spaces and garages), yet transform into a workable aircraft. All owners would need to do is fuel up, taxi onto a convenient airstrip, and take off. What’s more, it’s a two seater with a useful load of about 460 pounds. That means it can handle a pilot, a passenger, and a bit of gear (the example Terrafugia likes to go on about is “golf clubs”).  You can also hop into it like a car — no need to climb up and wedge through a tiny door. The wing extension and retraction is electromechanical — owners just push a button to retract or deploy their wings.

The Transition runs on everyday high-octane automotive fuel, so owners can fill up at the corner station. When in car mode, the wings fold up into large vertical panels along the side of the vehicle, and it’s only 80 inches wide. (Of course, no one is going to mistake it for a Mini Cooper: the Transition is some 18-feet 9-inches long.)

The Transition features a rear-mounted 100 horsepower Rotax 912ULS engine. It flies with a rear-facing three-blade propeller, and drives with rear-wheel drive. While it’s not going to break any speed records, the specs are somewhat respectable: It’ll go up to 65 mph on the highway (stay out of the left lane), and as a light sport aircraft has a top flight speed of 100 kts (115 mph). It carries 23 gallons of usable fuel. That translates to a max of about four hours’ flying time, while on the ground Terrafugia claims the Transition gets about 35 mpg.

Last month, Terrafugia completed its first flight of the Transition production prototype, and the company expects to start delivering vehicles next year. The appearance at the New York Auto Show is mainly to gauge interest from non-pilots: the company says its order backlog for the Transitions has a number of people who aren’t currently licensed pilots. Deposits are $10,000; pricing for the Transition starts at $279,000.

Been there, done that

Will the Terrafugia Transition take off? History says no.

Curtiss Autoplane

The idea of flying cars has been around longer than the airplane itself—back in the 1700s there was even an ambitious attempt to develop a flying horse cart. The first serious attempt was in 1917 — not even 15 years after the Wright Brothers — with the Curtiss Autoplane: it was basically an aluminum car with a triple set of 40-foot wings that could be laboriously attached and detached from the back. The Autoplane never flew (it did some hops), but did ignite interest in flying cars. Another notable early entry was Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Arrowbile: it featured a three-wheel design, a rear propeller, and detachable wings, but it was really the first “flying wing”—it had no tail. The Arrowbile eventually stalled out due to lack of funding… and the world slipping into war.

Waterman Arrowbile

In the aftermath of World War II, interest in flying cars surged. Robert Fulton—a distant descendent of the steam engine pioneer — rolled out the Airphibian in 1946. Where all previous flying car attempts had essentially tried to make a car that could fly, Fulton’s approach was more similar to the Terrafugia Transition: he built a plane that could also go on the road. The Airphibian’s wings and tail section could be removed in just a few minutes, and they were designed so the propeller could be stashed inside the fuselage: the idea was that you’d land, drop the wings and tail in a garage or hanger, then head out on the road. The Airphibian actually got CAA certification (the FAA wasn’t yet in existence) and looked to be on the fast track to success: Unfortunately, the project fizzled due to the lack of a prime ingredient: money.

Fulton Airphibian (FlugKerl2)

There were a number of other attempts at flying cars, including the ConvAirCar, which crashed on its third test flight — but the most direct successor to the Airphibian was the Taylor AeroCar. It used modern design materials like a fiberglass body, and was designed to move from car to plane and back again without major interruption. Instead of detaching the wings, they could be folded back by one person in just five minutes. Moulton Taylor began work on it in 1949 (after meeting Fulton), built six examples, and managed to get CAA certification in 1956. Automaker Ford got interested in the vehicle, but no production deal was ever reached. Reportedly, one of the six example Aerocars is still flight-worthy.

Taylor AeroCar (Seattle Museum of Flight)

Practical matters

So if the idea of a flying car is so attractive, and has been undertaken by so many talented engineers, why has it never happened?

The first and primary reason is that cars and airplanes have dramatically different design criteria — they don’t go together very well. Private planes need to be very lightweight, pack reasonably powerful engines, and operate very efficiently. Cars, on the other hand, are about road performance, creature comforts, and (perhaps above all) crash safety. In that regards, early attempts at flying cars actually had one less barrier to hop over than modern versions: They didn’t have to contend with a myriad of road safety and fuel efficiency regulations. Heck, most of them didn’t even have to face seatbelt requirements.

That said, the Terrafugia Transition has something going for it that no other car-to-plane vehicle has managed: It has permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to go on the road. The approval comes in the form of special exemptions. For instance, the Transition gets to use polycarbonate windows instead of safety glass to save on weight (and because the shatter behavior of safety glass is a bad idea for planes). It also uses highway-capable tires that aren’t normally allowed on multipurpose vehicles.

That said, the Transition is also undergoing extensive analysis and simulated crash testing to evaluate its safety — and it features a lot of the niceties of conventional road cars, like headlamps, brake lights, and turn signals. (Why am I imagining someone flying behind a plane with a perpetual left blinker?) It also has airbags, and features a passenger safety cage and crumple zones designed to protect occupants in the event of a collision. An intriguing part of the Transition’s safety gear is a full-vehicle parachute: If the engine dies mid-flight and the plane can’t glide to a landing, there’s an option other than nose-diving into the ground.

Still, one has to wonder how the Transition would hold up to a fender-bender: considering how expensive quarter-panel damage can be on everyday cars, the cost to repair a Transition flying car after a minor traffic accident could be prohibitive — especially since it’s not the sort of vehicle that can be taken to the mechanic down the street for repairs. Owners might have to fly in some of Terrefugia’s MIT-trained engineers, or have the vehicle shipped back to Massachusetts.

And it’s not just a matter of careful driving: check out the massive blind spots created by the wings. Transition drivers may literally never know what hit them—or what they hit changing lanes.

Terrafugia Transition (Blind Spot)

Those pesky, pesky rules

Aside from approvals from the NHTSA and the FAA — which are no small things — would-be flying car operators face another hurdle: pilot certification. At a minimum, flying the Terrefugia Transition will require a Sport Pilot Certificate (which, itself, requires a valid drivers’ license). Terrafugia is quick to point out this entails only 20 hours of training — five of those hours are solo flight, by the way.

However, a Sport Flight Certification comes with some major restrictions. Sport pilots cannot fly at night. (Never. Period. No exceptions. Night and instrument ratings are only available for far more-intensive private- or commercial-pilot licenses.) Sport pilots are also not allowed to fly in traffic-controlled airspace — this rules out many of the urban areas where Terrafugia might find many of its potential customers. Sport pilots also aren’t permitted to take off in conditions where there’s less then three miles’ visibility, or to fly when view of the ground is obscured (whether by fog, smoke, or other conditions). So it might be a beautiful morning when you fly into town, but if a storm blows in during the afternoon, you’re driving home an 18-foot-long folded up airplane with massive blind spots and a top road speed of 65 mph.

Sport pilots are also prohibited from flying “in furtherance of business” — in other words, if you’re a real-estate agent thinking a flying car is a great way to get clients an aerial view of a property, or to snap those aerial views yourself, you’re violating terms of a sport pilot’s license.

Will the Transition fly?

Terrafugia Transition Flying

There’s no denying the Terrafugia Transition is a new take on an idea that’s been kicking around for almost a century. But there’s also no denying that the same factors that have kept flying cars off our roads (and out of our skies) are probably going to keep the Transition grounded.

First, there’s the cost. At a starting price of $279,000, the Transition is roughly $100,000 more expensive than standard light sport aircraft. For that kind of money, you could buy a higher performance, more fully-featured airplane and afford to buy and store a more-than-adequate car at three or four regional airports. The novelty of the Transition isn’t going to be enough to sway pilots who are already operating standard single-prop and light-sport aircraft. Similarly, the high cost (and ongoing maintenance and insurance costs) of the Transition will likely dissuade folks who aren’t already pilots. Anyone considering the Transition as their first plane probably needs to rethink.

There’s also the matter of where you would fly. It’s true that there are something like 15,000 airports throughout the United States, the vast majority of which have access to major roads. The idea of being able to quickly hop between two regional airstrips — say, one at the north end of town and the other at the south end of town — may be particularly appealing, particularly if the middle of town is bumper-to-bumper congestion. However, there are plenty of locations that can’t easily be reached by air, or that might not be be reachable by the Transition’s ground mode in practice. Think about unpaved roads and bush airstrips. The Transition’s potential customer pool is going to be primarily people already familiar with the aviation infrastructure in their area, and how to leverage it to their advantage: That mainly means current pilots.

The Terrafugia Transition is an ambitious project with a lot of charisma; unfortunately, even if it gets into production, it’ll be very lucky to become the Segway of the light sports aircraft world: A cool idea, but mostly a toy for the rich and well-heeled.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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