One Year After Its Debut, The Flying Car Is Closer To Reality
The Terrafugia Transition made its debut at the New York Auto Show last year
The vacuum cleaner, installed in the back of a Honda Odyssey minivan, captured a ton of attention last week. The innovation is a simple stroke of genius that parents everywhere will value when it comes to buying their family car.
On the other end of the spectrum, the flying car, the Terrafugia Transition, is one of the most ambitious automotive projects undertaken in the past few decades. It's the opposite of the everyman's car. It's the stuff of science fiction, but like the Odyssey, it may be coming soon to a hangar or driveway near you.
One year removed from its big debut at the New York Auto Show, the flying car remains a reality that could soon be in the hands of customers.
"It doesn't seem like it was a year ago," said Richard Gersh, Terrafugia's vice president of sales, on the crush of publicity that resulted from its New York appearance. "We were in front of more people than at any other event we've participated in. It seems a little surreal. We're still getting major feedback from the show, and riding the wave."
The wave includes more than 100 orders for the vehicle, which carries an initial sticker price of $279,000. That may sound like a lot, but consider a brand new 2013 Cessna 172 sells for $289,500.
Terrafugia could have gone back to the New York Auto Show this year, but Gersh said the company was "hunkered down" and concentrating its efforts in engineering and preparing to have the vehicle certified.
Because of its dual nature, that's a more complicated process than its vehicular or automotive peers face. The Transition must be certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to drive on the nation's roads.
As an aircraft, it falls under the "light sport" category of Federal Aviation Administration rules that don't mandate the aircraft be certified before it goes on sale. Terrafugia can self-certify the aircraft. But as a matter of practice, the FAA will likely audit the company's manufacturing processes and risk-management procedures as soon as Terrafugia begins production at its Woburn, Mass., facility.
The certification process is the company's focus right now. Gersh said Terrafugia, a privately held company funded by angel investors, won't discuss a production date until that's complete, but it's not expected within the next 12 months.
"Certification is actively what we're working on," he said. "We're making sure we have suppliers lined up, and it's highly likely we'll be building another prototype prior to production."
Once production begins, executives say they expect a low volume of production at first, perhaps 2 to 3 vehicles per month.
Other flying cars have been proposed and prototypes have been built before, but Terrafugia believes it's closer to financial success because two key elements in its design.
Wings extend and retract in approximately 30 seconds with the press of a button – there's no complicated transition between the two phases of use. Engineers also installed two distinct control systems, one for each phase. Keeping them separate actually simplified the design process.
The vehicle has made a few more appearances at air shows and aviation events. So far, the New York Auto Show remains the only automotive marketing show where the Transition has been displayed.
"We've been doing some things, but nothing like the scope of New York," Gersh said. "That was a whirlwind for a small company not used to doing something like that. When the timing is right, absolutely, we'll do it again and pursue the New York Auto Show or another big one."
In the meantime, the company's first prototype, a proof of concept that won the company a VIN number from NHTSA and an N-number from the FAA, is going on display at the Heritage Museum on Cape Cod this summer as part of an exhibit on concept cars.
It's an interesting fit – a museum paying homage to automotive past is displaying a vehicle whose heyday is still very much in the future.