Terrafugia's Flying Car: Fly In, Fold Up, and Drive Home

First flight of the Terrafugia Transition plane.
First flight of the Terrafugia Transition plane.

It's a cute, sporty aircraft that folds its wings for tooling around on land, and it's much closer to reality than you think. Terrafugia, a four-year-old Massachusetts company, plans to unveil the design of a production model of its hybrid aircraft-car at the Experimental Aircraft Association's convention in Oshkosh, Wis., next month and deliver to its first customer next year.

Terrafugia set out to engineer a light aircraft that will let a pilot drive it on the road instead of flying in bad weather -- and also provide greater mobility. After all, a rental car can be hard to come by when flying into a small airport in remote territory.

Mini-Car With Wings

The prototype looks like a mini-car with wings, four wheels and a back propeller. There's a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals for driving, and a control stick and rudder pedals for flying (see the company video).

"It's the future of personal aviation. It's something people have been waiting for for almost 100 years," says Richard Gersh, vice president of business development at Terrafugia. "We are the fist company that has a high chance of success at a commercially viable product."

The company has spent the past two years testing what it branded the Transition Roadable Aircraft on the road and in the air. In the air, the Transition can cruise at up to 115 miles per hour and enjoys a 460-mile range. It has a 20-gallon fuel tank and uses super premium gasoline.

On the road, the front-wheel drive, two-seater can achieve 30 miles per gallon on the highway. Gersh declines to disclose the top road speed, saying the company doesn't want people to compare what is really an airplane, with bonus driving ability, to regular cars. (Want more views? Here's a photo gallery.)

Runway Required

The Transition does require a runway for takeoff (and it needs to unfold its wings), so any thought of taking off from the middle of a freeway to beat a traffic jam will remain, well, just a dream.

Earlier this month, the privately funded Terrafugia, whose name means "escape from land" in Latin, said it had won a crucial exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration when the agency qualified the aircraft as a "light sport aircraft" even though it would be 110 pounds over the normal limit. The extra weight is necessary for safety features required for cars, such as airbags and a safety cage.

Winning the exemption will broaden Transition's appeal to the masses since getting a pilot license for a light sport aircraft requires fewer flight-training hours (20 hours minimum) than other types of licenses.

Pre-Orders in Hand

Getting the FAA approval will also bode well for fund-raising. Terrafugia has tentatively priced the futuristic vehicle at $194,000 and wants to make its first delivery in late 2011. It will take some serious money to produce Transition, which the company plans to assemble in its own plant in the Boston area. Terrafugia is hoping to raise "millions of dollars" in private and public money for commercial production, Gersh says.

The company has gotten more than 70 pre-orders, each requiring a $10,000 deposit, Gersh says. While he declines to disclose the anticipated production rate, Gersh says Terrafugia will take about two years to produce the 70-plus hybrid aircraft.

Terrafugia is also in discussions with financial institutions and insurance companies to come up with financing plans and policies.

Not the First, Just the Latest

Terrafugia isn't the first company to design flying cars. There's some disagreement on who can claim to be the first designer of an airplane/car hybrid. The honor goes to Robert Fulton Jr., who designed what he called the Airphibian in 1946, according to the Antique Automobile Club of America.

Aeronautical engineer Moulton Taylor saw Fulton's design in the 1940s and decided he could improve on it. Moulton went on to build the Aerocar, which had a three-speed manual transmission and foldable wings. It could cruise at 110 miles per hour in the air and up to 60 mph on the ground -- with gas mileage of 18 mpg on the road. He couldn't attract enough buyers and only produced six Aerocars.

Others have credited Glenn Curtiss, a rival of the Wright brothers, as the first flying-car designer. But Curtiss's design, called the Autoplane and built in 1917, wasn't actually able to fly. Some say Waldo Waterman should claim the honor because he designed a monoplane using a Studebaker engine.