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
In Terrafugia's Transition driving airplane, the canard wing doubles as the front bumper. John B. Carnett

The Transition is not a flying car. The vehicle, set to go on sale next 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.”

Dietrich’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.

And yet they’re doing it. As this article goes to press, a full-scale, fully functional proof-of-concept vehicle is being readied for a flight test in November. Every expert I spoke to expects the design to fly. More than 40 customers have put down a good-faith deposit of $7,500 to $10,000 for a Transition, and the company has roughly $1 million in private funding. The investors have been told that the first customers will be driving it next year. In a category marked by decades-long efforts, it’s an insane schedule. But the group has hit every one of its benchmarks since starting out two years ago, methodically pushing through its plan. Dietrich and his partners have adorned their bumpers with the message “My next car will be an airplane.” To them, this is not a joke. It’s the headline to a list of promises they intend to keep.

1. The Transition will fit in your garage.

In 2004, the 27-year-old Dietrich, then an aeronautics graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began formulating a new kind of airplane design based on a rigid list of directives. Among them: It had to fit inside the average suburban garage, 7 by 19 feet. (Besides saving on hangar fees, how better to one-up your neighbor’s Porsche?)
His inspiration came from, of all things, an FAA rule change. That year, the flight agency designated a new class of planes, called light-sport aircraft. To fly one, pilots would need only 20 hours of training, half that required for the most common license. The FAA wanted to open the sport of flying to more people, and in one of its stipulations, Dietrich spotted a market for a driving plane. The sport-pilot license requires pilots to land immediately if the weather turns bad. Dietrich figured that, if given the option, these pilots would choose a plane they could simply drive home.

Dietrich knew that to sustain a small company, his plane had to be inexpensive to manufacture and repair. That eliminated mechanically complex options like long, thin telescoping wings. By 2005, he had tested more than 50 designs in computer simulations. The final configuration was the only one that fit the requirements of the road, the runway and the business. He built a scale model, and it aced wind-tunnel tests.

“You could see from the beginning that he was going about it in a professional way,” says Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, who directs MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, “and that he wasn’t just a crank tinkering in his garage.” Dietrich was already a prolific inventor whose creations included a rocket engine and a simple tool that United Nations workers now use to deactivate land mines. That work, along with the Transition design, earned him MIT’s prestigious Lemelson Student Prize, an annual $30,000 award to the school’s most inventive young engineer. He took the check and started his company, along with Sam Schweighart, a jack-of-all-trades engineer whom he had met in MIT’s Rocket Club. By the end of 2005, he had also convinced classmate Anna Mracek to join, and they were married soon after. (She’s an iron-fisted project manager—she cuts off nerdy arguments to keep meetings tight, and her posted instructions for cleaning the bathrooms are a nine-point checklist.)

By the time I tour the company’s shop last November, the team has grown to eight engineers, including Andrew Heafitz, who spent the past decade building solar and electric cars, and composites wizard John “Turtle” Telfeyan, who designed America’s Cup boats for 20 years. But the only Transition I see is a radio-controlled one-fifth-scale model hanging from the ceiling. Computer screens reveal details of the engine’s innards. But there’s almost no hardware; they’re still shaping and baking the molds for the Transition’s composite frame.
What jumps out, though, is a working, full-scale, folding wing, and Dietrich proudly demonstrates it smoothly unfolding and locking into place. When we discuss the jump from crafting a single wing to cranking out hundreds of vehicles, though, his excitement dampens. Despite the impressive wing, the venture-capital money just isn’t coming in. Too many would-be investors (and customers) are doubtful that Terrafugia will succeed. “We can build one,” Dietrich insists. “We can make it work.”

2. The Transition will run on gasoline and fly for 460 miles. It will cost $194,000.

The Transition is meant to replace your current airplane, not your car. 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. Like Kansas City real-estate developer Mike McNicoll, who wants to fly to famous golf courses in Texas and Arizona. He also plans to soar to the greens just 35 miles from his house. “I’ll fly to an airport a few miles away and drive it right up to the club house,” he says. “I’ll deploy the wings a few times once I’m there, too.”

Impressed with how Terrafugia was meeting its deadlines—the wind-tunnel tests, the radio-controlled scale model, the working wing—McNicoll also signed on as an early investor. “Everything they said they were going to do along the way, they not only did it, but they did it by the time they said they would do it,” he says.

Paying customers are vital to Terrafugia’s plan, and so is making sure they can legally drive what they buy. “This whole process will grind to a halt if we can’t get it insured,” says Richard Gersh, Terrafugia’s vice president of business development. The 56-year-old Gersh, an amateur pilot with 30 years in the insurance industry, cornered Schweighart and the Dietrichs at a 2006 conference. Would the Transition fall under an aviation policy? he asked. An automotive one? They responded with blank stares. He offered his services.

Gersh now spends his days trying to anticipate every insurance and regulatory question that could keep the Transition off the road. He knows, for instance, that any insurer will ask how long it will take to replace a damaged wing and how much it will cost, so he has to get those estimates out of the engineers.

This spring, he managed to get the Dietrichs into Q&A sessions with regulators from the NHTSA and the EPA. Now they’re working with the NHTSA on whether video cameras and windshield-mounted screens can take the place of side-view mirrors, which are an aerodynamic nightmare, and with the EPA on whether the Transition will be classified as an airplane, which is held to looser emissions standards than automobiles are. For months, the EPA wouldn’t even return his calls, but Gersh eventually talked his way into a meeting with the official in charge of auto-emissions certificates. “I can’t go to Carl and say, ‘We can’t operate this as a car,’ ” Gersh says. “You can’t just take no for an answer.”

3. The Transition will be safe, and drive like a normal car in nearly any weather.

This might be Terrafugia’s boldest claim. 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.

He’s also realistic about its limitations. “It’s got big fold-up wings and a tail in the back. It’s more sensitive to wind. We’re not going to deny that,” he says. In most areas, he adds, “there are only about seven days a year where it wouldn’t be safe to take on the road.”

What about that potential SUV run-in? Heafitz’s simulations show that the carbon-fiber-and-foam-core beams that make up the vehicle’s safety cage will protect passengers in side and head-on impacts, per NHTSA requirements. He’s built electric-car prototypes with the same material, and those produced such phenomenal test scores that the NHTSA didn’t believe the data. The only reason it’s not used more often, Heafitz says, is cost.

An NHTSA official tells me that the agency doesn’t care “if the cage is made out of bubble gum, as long as it passes crash tests.” Right now, though, Terrafugia can’t afford to intentionally wreck this proof-of-concept vehicle to see if it will. They need it as a sales tool. So by the end of the year, they’ll start building three prototypes—these are the ones they’ll beat to death. “I’m looking forward to it,” Heafitz says, “because that tells you how well you designed a car: how hard it is to break.”

During my next two visits, in March and April, there’s still little to see, much less destroy. The frame of the cockpit is finished, but it’s empty inside. Mock-up parts crafted out of plywood, plastic cups and tissue boxes stand in for the engine. Telfeyan gives a lesson on carbon-fiber application to a few new interns, but they look wary of touching the body. It’s as if they’re creating a sculpture, not an airplane.
But nearly all the parts are here, organized in bins on the wall—the transmission, the belt, the engine, the suspension, even the seats and wheels. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; the board is laid out, the pieces ready to be fit together. “We’re going from having nothing in the plane to having everything ready to go in,” Schweighart says, staring wide-eyed at the shell as though he could see in it what I still could not: a road-ready vehicle, less than six months away.

4. The first Transition will fly in November. customers will have them by the end of 2009.

In early June, I drop in for “Weight on Wheels” day, the first test to see whether the vehicle supports itself; up until now, it’s been resting on a stand. For the first time, the Transition actually looks like, well, something. Without wings and a propeller, it reminds me of a plane crossed with a dune buggy.

The suspension and back wheels are in place, and an intern, Jordan Kusch, secures the front wheels. A TV crew is here. Dietrich is jittery. “You tightened all the lug nuts in the back, right?” he asks. Kusch nods. Minutes later, Schweighart repeats the question, “The rear wheels are tightened up?” “They are,” Kusch confirms. “I’ll go check,” Dietrich says.
After they triple-check the wheels, they carefully lift the proof-of-concept off its stand and gingerly set it on the floor. Nothing breaks, nothing cracks. “Weight on wheels!” whoops engineer Marc Stiller. For a few minutes, the shop is all smiles, cheers and flashing cameraphones. The Transition supports its own weight. That’s all it has to do today. But Dietrich isn’t satisfied. He kneels by the nose and starts pushing it up and down. He wants to see whether the first pothole will do it in. Nothing this rigorous was on the schedule, though, and the operations manager in his wife looks wary. “Uh, Carl?”

But the initial bounce goes well, so Dietrich motions for a few of the others to join him. They glance at one another nervously, then shrug and follow their leader. With two men on a side, they hoist the back of the vehicle a few feet off the floor, drop it, and breathe again as it lands, bounces to a stop—and holds together. Dietrich beams.

Eight weeks later, there’s a freshly painted, gleaming white, gorgeous airplane parked where the dune buggy used to be. I’ve come the morning the team is leaving for Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where they have committed to unveiling a finished vehicle at the Experimental Aircraft Association show. The crew has been working all night. Around 11 a.m., Schweighart sinks to the floor for a brief nap while Dietrich passes out in a chair surrounded by coffee cups. Everything but the prop shaft is installed. The body and engine are complete, the electronics are operational, and the remote-control doors open without a hitch.

The event is the Transition’s reveal to the world, and it’s critical for the business, since tens of thousands of pilots and potential customers will be there. Two interns push the vehicle out of the shop and up into the garage-size trailer. Neighbors and deliverymen gawk. The sky is blue and clear, the day perfect for the Transition to unfold its wings and take to the air. It almost could, and the team would love to do it, to show everyone right now how real this is. But they won’t turn on the engine for another month. That’s the plan: Show it off, then drive it, then fly it. Ticking off benchmarks until they finally have a few hundred pilots behind the wheel of what is—OK, yes—a flying car.