Terrafugia, a company started at MIT back in 2006, is set to finally deliver their flying car to customers this year. The Transition is a two-seater aircraft with foldable wings to allow it to drive on roads. It may not look like the flying car from the Jetsons — you still need an airfield to take off, and it certainly doesn’t fly itself yet (you need a Sport Pilot Certificate to operate it in the air) — but it will be the first flying car. For the transportation industry, the Transition represents something important for almost every sector, and the car companies, aircraft manufacturers, and airlines should all be worried. This vehicle is fulfilling a decades-long American dream.
The fact that the Transition is coming to market means something very important has happened: there is a regulatory path to flying vehicles. And even if it doesn’t look as cool as you might imagine (Terrafugia is working on a sexier concept vehicle called the TF-X), it still has some impressive specs. It has a max speed of 100 MPH, a range of 400 mi, takes premium gasoline, uses hybrid-electric motors while driving, and fits in your garage. Those are impressive performance numbers for a first-generation product.
So why should you care?
Back in December 2010, the Nissan Leaf debuted, and it is now the world’s all-time best-selling highway-capable electric car in history. But the original vehicle came from humble beginnings. With only 73 miles of range, a spontaneous road trip was out of the question, and the electric vehicle charging infrastructure that many EV owners take for granted today did not exist. Nevertheless, by year-end 2011 almost 10,000 Nissan Leafs had sold. It proved that there was a real market for green vehicles and that people were willing to make lifestyle changes to be environmentally friendly. Now almost every car company has an electric option. The Transition will transform the car and aviation industries in a similar (likely larger) way.
Currently, if you want to travel from San Jose to Las Vegas, it would either be an 8-hour drive or a 1-hour flight. But taking a commercial flight always means extra time spent traveling to and from the airport, going through security, getting a rental car, and so on. The Transition removes the need for all of these steps. In fact, you can even fly directly from San Jose to Las Vegas, land, fold up the wings, and drive to your hotel. And, depending on where you are going, there are often airports closer to your destination than the ones commercial flights fly to. The fuel will cost you about $80 (assuming $4/gallon California fuel prices) or about as much as a cheap commercial ticket. It will no longer be profitable for airlines to operate short-haul flights to destinations. Point-to-point cross-country and international trips will be the only realistic market in a flying car future. Although the Transition’s price point is out of reach for most of us (Terrafugia doesn’t have a number on their website but it was listed as $279,000 in December 2011), so was the original Tesla Roadster in 2006. But it has an obvious convenience that has never been available on the market before.
The Transition is the first flying car that will ever have been commercially sold and delivered. In addition to Terrafugia (now owned by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which owns Volvo Cars), Lillum, Kittyhawk, Airbus, Boeing, and Joby Aviation are all working towards a future where the flying car may become a regular commodity. Most of these companies are working on the next generation of vehicles that will fly themselves, have vertical take-off and landing, and be electric– eliminating many of the drawbacks of the Transition. NASA is even currently working with the FAA on ATM-X, the next generation of air traffic control that will integrate these vehicles into the larger system. So, if in the next ten years you have the choice between a flying car and a self-driving car, which one will you buy? You will likely have that choice thanks to the Terrafugia Transition.