That’s not a flying car

Chris Davies - Apr 4, 2012, 12:42pm CDT
That’s not a flying car

Terrafugia’s Transition flying car has faced the press at its New York Auto Show debut and inevitably caught the attention of Jetsons-raised geeks, but let’s face it: it’s not really a flying car. The two-seater is capable of four hours of flight when airborne, having driven at up to 65mph to your nearest airstrip, but you don’t have to take more than a cursory glance at the photos to see that this is more a folding plane than a car that flies. That brings with it plenty of headaches, though they’re ones which work at Google, among others, could address in the future.

Jalopnik has a good overview of the plane/car from the Auto Show, as well as an interview with VP of Sales Cliff Allen; the company is apparently thinking hard about all the various issues that come up when you bang road and air vehicles together, like massively shortened service intervals (think 2,000 hours) and the practicalities of insurance that covers both uses. It’s also a tour-de-force of modern tech, too, like carbon fiber, so-called “glass cockpit” instrumentation (i.e. all digital), and a customized continuous variable transmission (CTV) paired with a very light (1,435lb) weight.

I’m not looking to take away from Terrafugia’s achievements here. I’m sure there’s been a huge amount of work involved in making a collapsable plane; ensuring the folding wings alone are strong enough when extended would give me sleepless nights were I the engineer in charge, after all.

What you still need, though, is a runway, along with access to it that the Vespa wheels on the Transition can handle. No soaring over impromptu gridlock on the highway, or dipping down from the skies to the road outside your kid’s high school.

You’ll also need a pilot’s license – at the very least a Sport Pilot License, Digital Trends says, which takes 20 hours of training (a quarter of which are solo flight) but doesn’t allow pilots to fly at night – but even then, the thought of barely-trained people taking to the skies is terrifying.

What’s really needed is technology such as Google is developing for its driverless-cars, where human fallibility is squeezed out and replaced by calculating machines. Of course, the cars are only just getting approval for use on roads; we’re a long way off from something that can do the same in 3D space. Without it, though, flying cars will forever be the preserve of a very small subset of likely established pilots.

Still, not everyone is so cynical – or, perhaps, as patient. Terrafugia says around 100 pre-orders have been placed for the Transition already, at $10,000 a pop, with the final model expected to cost $279,000.


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19 Responses to That’s not a flying car

  1. “it’s not really a flying car.”

    I believe the term they use is “roadable aircraft”. Anyway, it is a nice step along the way to the real flying car. This was never going to happen overnight….

    • My first thought:
         Two men looking down at a body in a pool of blood
      …..I believe the term they use is “human-powered wings”. Anyway, it is a nice step along the way to the real flying car. This was never going to happen overnight

  2. “Still, not everyone is so cynical – or, perhaps,
    as patient. Terrafugia says around 100 pre-orders have been placed for
    the Transition already, at $10,000 a pop, with the final model expected
    to cost $279,000.”

    10,000 for deposit or the plane?

  3. “Of course, the cars are only just getting approval for use on roads; we’re a long way off from something that can do the same in 3D space”
    actually is more easy to drive an airplane by machine, or entirely by machine in that way, than a car on a common road.

  4. So, the “you can’t do that” crowd is heard from. Anyone who is not opposed progress and free thinking have anything to add?

  5. Making a flying car is a lot like putting wings on a blimp.  It might be interesting as an intellectual exercise, but at the end of the day one is left with “what’s the point?”  And while Chris Davies may believe that making driverless cars eliminates human fallibility, well, tell that to the guys were flown into the ground by their own flight control system at the Paris Air Show.  If you really want to soar above the traffic, get your employer to let you use the internet to go to work.  Then the people that do actually have to physically go there won’t be in gridlock, and those of us who work in cubes can just stay home in our jammys and get the job done.

    • According to what you say, all “intellectual exercise”s such as mathematics have no “point,” as they are not immediately applicable or not practical. It is however such exercises that advance the technology to the next level. Same goes for the Wright brother’s “plane” that could only fly a couple hundred meters, what’s the point of that? We now see the point as that basic idea has been developed to something viable.

      • I always enjoy people who miss the point in order to argue.  Design in engineering is about meeting a set of requirements, and in this case, the requirements of flight necessitate light structures built very close to easily being broken in order to succeed.  Meanwhile automobiles have to be rugged, and as the author pointed out, the thing is a bit suspect in that respect.  Of course it’s fun to ask, “What if…”; but of course one has to be ready for the answer being “No.”  This is yet another incarnation of the flying car, which is destined by the laws of physics and engineering and economics to be an epic fail.  Why spend a quarter of a million dollars on something that does neither job well, when you can buy a great car and a great airplane for less, and they both do their jobs well?

        • Well, nothing in laws of physics or engineering contradicts the possibility of a flying car. It is perhaps more appropriate to argue that engineering is not yet ripe for building a practical flying car. What I am arguing is that this project might be an important milestone for the ideal flying car (whatever that is). I am not an expert on economics, but as far as I know, once a product becomes popular, its cost can be decreased by more advanced production methods. The developers have obviously spent a lot of money on this project, and probably that is why the initial price is so high. As for “why spend a quarter of million dollars,” I think it is irrelevant to the topic that we are discussing, there obviously people out there willing to spend that money, we should ask them I guess.

        • Well, nothing in laws of physics or engineering contradicts the possibility of a flying car. It is perhaps more appropriate to argue that engineering is not yet ripe for building a practical flying car. What I am arguing is that this project might be an important milestone for the ideal flying car (whatever that is). I am not an expert on economics, but as far as I know, once a product becomes popular, its cost can be decreased by more advanced production methods. The developers have obviously spent a lot of money on this project, and probably that is why the initial price is so high. As for “why spend a quarter of million dollars,” I think it is irrelevant to the topic that we are discussing, there obviously people out there willing to spend that money, we should ask them I guess.

  6. Defaming a nice work behind the veil of being kind with unjustified assumptions/arguments while advertising the totally unrelated work of Google.

  7. Yeah it’s not. Unfortunately Moller (the real flying car) is going to China where his tech will be stolen and they will surpass us with flying car highways. 

  8. You’re missing the point, Chris. I think it’s a safe bet you are not a pilot. A big inconvenience of flying a personal plane to a destination is the lack of transportation when you arrive. Some pilots who regularly fly to one destination keep an “airport car”; perpetually parked at the airport waiting for you should you fly there. if you fly to multiple destinations, the airport car solution isn’t practical. That’s where the Transition makes sense. It’s not for “swooping down to pick up your kids from school”. Unless your kids go to school hundreds of miles away, the preflight alone would take longer than driving there.

  9. Seriously though i liked the hovercraft version i saw in a article sometime last year. looked alot more “motorcycle” like. we will get there someday but we DEFINATLY need to make it idoit proof and no young or old drivers! j/k.

  10. “…  the thought of barely-trained people taking to the skies is terrifying.”

    Frankly, driving two-lane highways with barely trained drivers coming at us just inches away at a combined velocity well in excess of one hundred miles per hour is more terrifying.

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