Living Like The Jetsons Closer than Ever Thanks to Woburn-Based Terrafugia

How far off are we from flying cars? In all reality, not far at all.

Meet George Jetson…

Ok, not really, but close. Meet Carl Dietrich, Founder and CEO of Terrafugia, the Woburn-based company building flying cars.

In fact, Dietrich and his team have already built a vehicle that has driven city streets and flown U.S. airspace. It’s just not the norm, of course… yet.

Dietrich is a Bay Area native who came to Boston in 1995 to attend MIT where he would receive his BS, MS and Ph.D. from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Being a part of the rare breed of young kids that know what they want when they grow up, Dietrich started saving for his pilot license at the age of eight.

Strangely, however, he didn’t want to be a pilot, he wanted to build airplanes and, somehow, at his age, he realized he’d be a better builder if he had experience flying.

He got that license at age 17.

In high school (pre-internet days), Dietrich spent his time in libraries reading up on airplane design and eventually wrote software showing how to build planes. He tells me he had more than his fair share of crashed remote control planes (most of which he built himself).

Admittedly, Dietrich couldn’t specifically pinpoint where the passion for planes stemmed from. His grandfather trained to fly in WW1 (thankfully was never deployed) and his mother was a flight attendant, but it really came down to a simple question he asked himself: “What’s the coolest thing I can build?”

When Dietrich embarked on a journey to MIT, it was clear aerospace would be his focus. By 1999 he had a business plan together for a rocket engine, which eventually ended up on the back burner due to a lack of market opportunity.

Along the way, the FAA was changing some regulations when it came to acquiring a Sport Pilot License, therefore lowering the barrier of entry for a consumer business.

This was Dietrich’s opportunity. He needed something with high potential and realistic enough to attract investors, but just crazy enough that established industry leaders wouldn’t venture into.

To hear Dietrich talk about his line of thinking is fascinating (we’re talking about flying cars here). He explained to me how there is nothing physically impossible when it comes to making this a reality. And many, myself included, would think it’s the regulatory concerns that are the biggest barrier. However, Dietrich says hurdle number one is society. Overcoming the societal pushback, stemming mostly from fear, is the toughest challenge.

A welcoming society would lead to more beneficial regulation.

Dietrich can go into detail about how their future model, The TF-X, which will fly itself, is actually safer than driving (less physical variables and more maneuverability space in the air versus the streets). He’ll explain that Terrafugia vehicles meet all the safety standards our cars and trucks do. Dietrich will even explain that this type of technology already exists (drones and self-driving cars).

While he had me sold before I walked into the building and saw the images, models and some of the manufacturing processes, I can appreciate the societal hurdle.

However, I think anyone given the opportunity to hear from Dietrich directly would come around relatively quickly.

The Evolution of The Transition®

When Dietrich started his journey, he knew he needed a proof of concept — a vehicle that flew, drove and met safety regulations. The Transition would be built to meet these requirements.

In 2006 Dietrich put a business plan together and entered an MIT competition at which he’d finish runner-up (2nd,really?) and earn $10,000. He coupled that with $30,000 he won from an MIT Invention Prize, incorporated the business and took his idea to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the industry’s flagship tradeshow.

Dietrich would walk away with seven deposit checks in hand for his Transition vehicle and investors soon followed. In December of ’06 Dietrich closed a $250,000 convertible note — “enough to get started,” he told me.

By January 2007, Dietrich and two others started full-time and a month later moved into a small garage space in Woburn, MA.

Subsequent years at Oshkosh would show the industry of their progress and lead to more interest and more investors (to date approximately $15M raised and counting).

March 5th 2009 (a day that could eventually live in history books) was the day The Transition first took flight. Out of an air command base in Plattsburgh, NY a Terrafugia test pilot took to the air in a flying car.

Dietrich’s first flight wouldn’t come until April of this year as part of a two-person flight evaluation process — learning what it will be like to train others on The Transition.

With it’s folding wing technology, The Transition is compact enough to fit inside a standard residential garage and converts between flying and driving modes in under a minute. It is the only light aircraft designed to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Seeing the original vehicle and the current model, which is representative of those to be distributed in 2016/’17, I could see the differences, but surprisingly not nearly as I would have expected. A true testament to how impressive the initial design was.

The Transition, which is projected to see distribution will have an anticipated base price of $279,000. You can reserve your spot in production for the vehicle, which is comparable in size to a Ford F350, with a $10,000 refundable deposit here. All vehicles are and will be handmade.

What Does The Future Hold?

This is a bit of a loaded question as there are many hurdles to get over, but, without getting too into the weeds, certain regulations (Automatic Dependence Broadcasting System, for example) are set to be in place in 2020 that will aid Terrafugia and others in the space to see their work become reality.

Dietrich sees massive economic benefit to this movement, citing $125B is lost in the U.S. alone due to traffic congestion. The only way to solve this is by using the space available above the street.

For Terrafugia, specifically, the future is the TF-X, which is much more of an everyday car that can take off like a helicopter. Its vertical lift-off technology will provide the true convenience of being able to fly from Point-A to Point-B.

For now, you can join the 100+ people in line to purchase The Transition and you’ll just have to drive that to the runway before takeoff.

In Dietrich’s eyes, “The Transition doesn’t have mass market, the TF-X does.”

He and his team (which is growing) at Terrafugia plan to turn this science fiction concept into reality. Absolutely it is a long process (think of the evolution of travel from horse and buggy to the Ford Model T to today), but we seem to have the right team leading the charge right here in Boston.

Dietrich’s goal remains intact: “to bring this to the masses and take the fear away.”

Whether you see Dietrich as the real life George Jetson or the modern day Henry Ford, he is indisputably the man who has surpassed what he set out to do at age 8 and I’m not betting against that track record.

This post originally appeared on VentureFizz — the pulse of the Boston Tech Scene.

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