Why The Flying Car Everyone's Talking About Isn't A Flying Car

I'm a sucker for flying cars, being part of the list of things the future owes me (also, jetpacks, pizzas in pill form, and quality sexbots).

So, when I saw the Terrafugia Transition booth, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flaming flying car. What I found is that the Terrafugia Transition seems like a well-thought out solution to the normally doomed prospect of flying cars. Perhaps the most promising thing about it is that it's not a "flying car." It's really just a plane you can drive.

Talking to Terrafugia VP of Sales Cliff Allen, I learned a great deal about the Transition. Allen told me the reason the Transition exists at all is thanks to three reasons: First, 2004's Light Sport Aircraft classification, which the FAA made to encourage new small-craft development. This new classification for two-seater, fixed gear, smaller, slower aircraft dramatically reduces the development time and cost for new types of small airplanes, making ventures like these actually plausible, financially. Next is carbon fiber, which has become cheap and usable enough to be a viable material for small plane construction. The last reason is surprising, at least to me: Glass cockpit technology. Yes, the same basic tech that lets us play Draw Something anywhere, until our eyeballs bleed is also making aircraft instrumentation so much lighter and cheaper crazy driving planes are now a viable idea again.

Oh, and this is a great detail: The wheels and tires are from a Vespa. These tires are one of the special exceptions made for the craft, which is technically classified the same way as a truck or SUV, in that it is often a very, very off-road vehicle. Those regs normally dictate all-terrain tires, but, for the Transition, the off-roading is pretty easy on the tires.

Technically, the Transition's full of interesting stuff: A flat-four Rotax engine making 100 HP (making Terrafugia the fourth marque to offer a boxer engine, along with Porsche, Subaru, and Scion/Toyota), a custom CVT, a three-disc brake system (two up front, one in the rear, on the driveshaft), mid-engine placement, and a 1435 lb weight, making it likely the lightest car you could buy, if you could buy it.

To me what's really exciting is that they're actually talking about a wingless, flightless version of the car (plane?), which would make a very exciting mid-engined 800 lb pocket rocket that would look like nothing else on the road. That could be a metric crapload of fun.

The interior is built for lightness and not luxury, and differs from past flying car dreams in that no attempt is made to combine car and plane controls: The aircraft control stick folds down and out of the way when on the road, and flanking the usual driving pedals are two rudder pedals. Everything looks well-laid out, and the test pilot claims driving is easy to the point of a non-issue. There's no rear window, but massive mirrors slide out of the body, and I suspect parallel parking the 19-foot long (90 inch wheelbase) roadable plane is probably pretty tricky.

The goal of the $280,000 plane/car is getting places, specifically places between 100-500 miles from wherever you are. It's not intended to be a toy, but rather a genuine get-you-there-and-back vehicle. The sales VP told me that the second most common cause of accidents in small planes is due to pilots flying from good to bad weather, and the stubbornness of pilots to actually, you know, get to where they want to go. A plane that can land and drive when weather conditions deteriorate could actually prevent many small-craft accidents. In the event of trouble in the air, however, the Transition does have one of those cool full-plane parachutes.

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There's so many issues with planes that can be driven, but it does seem like they're really thinking about them. They're even working with insurance companies to develop special hybrid plans to cover the vehicle in both modes of travel. Even basics like engine maintenance seem foreign to normal car drivers (the engine goes 2000 hours between overhauls– what car driver thinks in those terms), and it's pretty clear the target market is for people already familiar with aircraft.

Any kind of flying car project, or drivable plane project has always seemed absurdly pie-in-the-sky (and pie-on-the-ground, I guess). But talking to these guys and seeing what they've built, and how strangely practical it actually seems, is making me think that just maybe the time has actually come for these, the actually exciting hybrids.