Contributing Monkie Jennifer Buonantony
Published on February 3, 2009
You’re stuck again on the 405 in your morning commute and for a minute you daydream that your car lifts off above the traffic and flies you directly to work. Trust me, I know how you’re feeling and no, you haven’t been watching too many re-runs of the Jetsons with your kids during Sunday morning cartoons. Well, maybe you have…but the idea isn’t as fantastical as it once was. The company Terrafugia has begun manufacturing a ‘roadable aircraft’ (a.k.a. drivable plane). And yes, the vehicle can do both- fly and drive.
The first full scale model of Terrafugia’s two-seater hybrid vehicle, the Transition, is currently being built in a former machine shop in Woburn, MA, by ten employees whose goal is to debut the vehicle in this summer’s Air Venture aviation festival. It is the largest festival of its kind, held in Oshkosh, WI, annually. The team behind the Transition is led by a thirty-year old aerospace engineer- and some call visionary- Carl Dietrich, who holds a doctorate in the field from MIT.
The Transition is designed to change from a plane to an automobile in about thirty seconds. Even skeptics have to admit that’s impressive. With literally the flip of a switch the Transition’s wings are meant to fold up, the license plates for roadway driving rotate into place, and the special engine shifts to use its front road wheels for power rather than its rear propeller as done in flight. Perhaps the coolest feature about the Transition is that it’s meant for a pilot to land the vehicle on an airport runway and then drive right off the tarmac and out onto public roadways without any delay. The company’s lofty flight plan is to deliver the first Transition vehicle to a customer by 2009 and go into large-scale production by 2012. More than forty customers have already submitted their refundable $7,400 down payment to be the first to fly…drive….flive? Well, obviously some people think it’s possible.
The overall cost of the Transition will be somewhere above the 150K range, making it an extremely high-priced car and a cheap small aircraft. However you look at it, it will be a luxury that at first, only the wealthy can afford. But more pressing to me than the cost factor, are the array of other issues a roadable aircraft will raise. It is assumed that the Transition will have to pass both the certification processes of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But to be honest, the Transition is a totally new type of vehicle and no one is really sure what set of safety regulations and standards it will be forced to meet. Furthermore, Terrafugia designed the Transition with the hope that it will pass as a Special Light-Sport Aircraft (weighs less than 1,320 pounds, carries no more than 2 people, & travels under 138 miles per hour) meaning the pilot with only need about half the training off a traditional aviation flyer to qualify for the license. And you thought student drivers were your biggest travel fear!
Other obvious roadblocks to a vehicle that can fly above traditional obstacles focus around the issue of how this new air traffic will be regulated. If you have a vehicle that can both fly and drive and that becomes accessible over time to an entire population, the act of flying or driving will eventually need a whole new set of rules. Who will decide and enforce how this travel is done? Not to mention there are an array of practical issues like overcrowding and security at airports, airspace congestion and safety, and the need for a special type of insurance policy… to name a few off the top of my head.
As much as I would like to cut my travel time in half, the idea of putting a vehicle that can both fly and drive on the market in the next few years seems as much as a safety risk as it does a travel reward. While the Transition presents an impressive possibility, I think Terrafugia must realize that their needs to be a transition period for this technology before going public. Otherwise I see their investment finding itself on a turbulent path to its mass-market destination.
Videos and Behind the scenes at terrafugia.com