Nobody ever told me that making a flying car would be easy. I must admit that the challenge is part of the fascination for me, but it’s more than just a desire to solve difficult problems. Like many pilots and engineers before me, I want to make personal aviation a bigger part of everyone’s life – not so much for the romance of it, but rather because I know it has the potential to be so much more useful than it is today. I believe that progress comes when we empower individuals to do more, and if we could give each person the freedom of personal flight, we could empower the individual like never before. My goal is to make personal aviation a practical transportation option for everyone – to turn the dream of the flying car from science fiction into reality.
The barriers to accomplishing this vision are substantial. Aircraft are much more expensive than cars. They are made in low volumes with a lot of manual labor and expensive materials. In addition, pilots today require extensive training which is expensive and time consuming to obtain. Vehicles which can be flown with significantly less training, while theoretically possible, have never been demonstrated at a size that could safely carry a person while meeting or exceeding the minimum acceptable level of safety of general aviation (GA), and they certainly have never been certified by the FAA. Some of the standards to which these vehicles will have to be certified haven’t even been written yet. And beyond these practical regulatory and technical barriers, it would be dangerous to take off and land in many convenient locations – there are practical infrastructure constraints. But most of all, many people today simply do not see the potential empowerment that personal flight could bring to their lives. A large fraction of the general public is scared of the very idea of a practical flying car – not just of flying in one themselves, but of the idea of thousands of small aircraft flying over their homes.
We need to demonstrate how much better life could be with practical flying cars.
There is precedent for how this type of societal change can happen. When cars were first introduced in the late 1800’s, they were mostly a novelty for the rich. Assembly line production techniques eventually brought the vehicles within economic reach of the middle class, and a combination of widespread public relations investments, regulatory changes, and infrastructure investments allowed the automobile industry to explode and forever change mass personal transportation. With time, such a change can happen again.
The long time scale of this type of change is a major barrier unto itself – historical precedent suggests that this sort of large-scale societal change takes on the order of a generation to become fully integrated into the mainstream. Terrafugia has developed a strategy that acknowledges the reality of the time scale for grand change while still demonstrating meaningful progress on a practical, investable, time scale. We have divided the ultimate goal of creating a practical flying car for everyone into three significant, individually investable, steps:
- Bring a GA aircraft to market that provides meaningful new value to the existing pilot population while allowing our company to demonstrate to non-pilots that this platform could be more useful than a car in certain cases, and much easier to operate than many non-pilots would expect. This first step should offer new capabilities to both pilots and non-pilots, but it should not require significant regulatory change and no infrastructure change should be needed. This step demonstrates to the public that flying cars can be safe and useful while allowing our company to build operational experience. Step one is the Terrafugia Transition®.
- Develop a second product for a larger market that is enabled by simplified flight technology: VTOL vehicles for urban short-range travel. This step will require some more meaningful regulatory and infrastructure change, and we will work with other industry leaders to make the investments necessary to open this new market. Expanding outside the scope of the existing GA market is key to harnessing the financial resources that will be needed to effect broad societal change. This product will be highly specialized and will be one of many in an emerging competitive landscape, but the vehicle development itself should still be as small an investment as is practical to achieve a meaningful fraction of this new market. While this new market may rely on some new infrastructure and regulation, it should not rely on low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) technology. Uber, Airbus, and other powerful corporations are already working on early stage concepts that target this market opportunity, but it will be many years before they become a reality.
- Develop a third product that more closely resembles the pop-culture vision of a flying car. Think Blade Runner or Back to the Future. This vehicle would incorporate technology that is at a low TRL level (or even non-existent) today. The market for this third product would dwarf both earlier markets due to the new capabilities that will be enabled by the new technology, but it faces significant technology, regulation, and infrastructure barriers today. This third step is the one that will bring the flying car to the masses, but it will only be possible after the first two steps have been achieved. Terrafugia’s vision for this type of vehicle is a concept known as the TF-X™ – a flying car that provides true door-to-door VTOL operations at high speeds and over long ranges.
Reaching step three will not happen overnight – it will require the better part of a generation, and as tempting as it may be, we cannot skip the intermediate stages and jump straight to that ultimate vision. But Terrafugia is committed to heading in that direction.
Bringing the Transition® to market
Today, Terrafugia is focused on step one: bringing the Terrafugia Transition® to market.
The Transition® is a folding-wing, two-seat roadable aircraft, designed to fly like a typical Light Sport Aircraft in the air and drive like a typical car on the ground. It will run on premium unleaded automotive gasoline, fit in a standard-construction single-car garage, and convert between flight and drive modes in under a minute. In addition, it will be a platform for autonomous flight technologies such as automatic ground collision avoidance and full envelope protection. These software packages, in combination with the Transition’s® full suite of automotive safety features, will make the Transition® safer than any other small aircraft in the sky.
In addition to setting a new standard for safety in General Aviation, the Transition® also offers an unparalleled level of convenience. The Transition® addresses all four of the largest obstacles to the more widespread use of general aviation identified by pilots: weather sensitivity (in bad weather, the Transition® can simply land and drive), high recurring costs (the Transition® does not require expensive aviation gas or a hangar at the airport), long door-to-door travel time, and limited ground mobility at many small airports. Furthermore, as an LSA with a robust autonomous software safety net, the Transition® is extremely easy and unintimidating to fly – we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both pilots and non-pilots who are excited to buy the Transition®. And all other advantages aside, my favorite thing about the Transition® is just how much fun it is to drive and fly! How many other aircraft can taxi with a steering wheel, or honk their horn and use turn signals in the pattern?
Why not just a separate car and plane?
Like any innovative, disruptive company, Terrafugia has encountered our fair share of naysayers over the years. Many people ask, why not just have a separate car and plane? There must be performance compromises.
There absolutely are better performing pure cars and pure planes. But the convenience and flexibility of being able to change plans at any point provides more freedom to the end user than even extremely high performance planes or cars. The average pilot spends 30 minutes stopped on the ground between parking his/her car at the airport and finally taking off. With the Transition®, that stopped time is just the forty second conversion plus the pre-flight inspection. The Transition® will beat high-performance GA aircraft on decision-to-destination metrics for average trips up to almost 200 miles because the user will spend less time stopped on the ground planning a flight, shuffling flight bags, and warming up the aircraft.
But it’s not just about the time savings. Human desires are non-linear; metrics of traditional aircraft performance can’t be used to predict market share. If minimum thresholds of acceptable performance are met, comfort and convenience can be more highly valued than performance in today’s world – look at your smartphone compared to a desktop. Even though the desktop can have much better performance at a similar price point, Apple is the most valuable company in the world because of the iPhone, not the iMac.
The first step is often the hardest, and the Transition® is no exception. The market for GA products is small, and the amount of capital required to bring the Transition® to market is non-trivial. The long timeline and significant uncertainty make securing the necessary capital challenging, as many investors understandably prefer projects with less risk than flying cars. This challenge is the biggest reason the Transition® has taken so much longer than anticipated. There have also been a series of technical and regulatory hurdles to overcome. But with the FAA’s recent approval of our petition for exemption, the largest regulatory challenges are now behind us, and the remaining technical challenges appear to be solvable within a reasonable timeframe. There’s still a long road ahead, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there is a future for the flying car. It’s going to be exciting!
This article was originally published as an op ed in Professional Pilot magazine.