Designing the world's first commercially viable flying car presents unique engineering challenges. One is manufacturing an airplane engine that doesn't overheat when idling in traffic. Another is incorporating both car and aircraft navigation features—steering wheel, control stick, gas and rudder pedals—in a two-person cockpit. The founders of Terrafugia in Woburn, Mass., never doubted they'd get the engineering right. "We always knew we could do it from a technical standpoint," says Carl Dietrich, a co-founder of the company. He'll soon find out whether he nailed the business angle.
In June, Terrafugia (Latin for "escape from land") cleared a significant hurdle when the Federal Aviation Administration granted its car-plane, the Transition, an exemption so that it can include air bags and other car safety features. These devices put the contraption 110 pounds over the normal weight limit for light aircraft. Now the Transition, which weighs 1,430 pounds, or roughly half as much as a Mini Cooper, is a step closer to becoming the first "street-legal plane," as the company's founders call it.
The Transition transforms from plane to car and vice versa in "about the time it takes to lower the top on a convertible," says Dietrich, 33. The vehicle must take off and land at an airport; once in the air, it can range 460 miles at a speed of 110 miles per hour. On the ground, its wings collapse in two and fold along its sides.
The limousine-length Transition can zip along highways at a little over 60 mph. It runs on premium unleaded gasoline, which is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than jet fuel.
Dietrich started working in earnest on the project in 2004, when the FAA created a new classification for light sport aircraft. The category loosened manufacturing requirements and halved the flight time necessary for a pilot's license to just 20 hours. Those changes, along with advances in composite materials and computer avionics, convinced Dietrich and two co-founders, who met as graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that they could build a flying car and compete in the $1 billion single-engine aviation industry.
Terrafugia has collected more than 80 down payments for the $194,000 vehicle and plans to start deliveries by the end of 2011. Within five years it hopes to produce between 300 and 400 annually.
"I'm sure it'll find a niche," says Richard L. Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. "But it has to be for a very rich population in wide-open areas: aviation-minded multi-millionaires in Iowa."
So far, the only person to have flown the Transition is Terrafugia's test pilot, Philip Meteer, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. The experience, he says, was "remarkably unremarkable."
Create the world's first commercially viable "street-legal plane"
Met his co-founders in grad school at MIT
460-mile range; 110 mph cruising speed; uses premium gasoline