Small steps toward a much better world (TGS is over)

Terrafugia, Inc., the Woburn, Mass., company developing a flying car or “roadable aircraft” called the Transition, says it received special exemptions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The exemptions, which are particular to vehicles that fly and drive on roads, will allow the company to begin delivering the Transition when it is ready late next year. They allow the Transition to use plastic windows instead of standard automotive safety glass, and tires that aren’t normally allowed on multi-purpose vehicles.

The company says laminated safety glass used on cars for decades would add too much weight and could fracture in a way that would obscure the pilot’s view through the windshield. Lightweight polycarbonate windshields used in aircraft are designed in part to withstand impacts with birds, which are generally more of a hazard to pilots than drivers.

The article is here and for the pointer I thank Alex.


Their website says the vehicle will cost ~250k. Difficult to imagine it replacing air travel as we know it for the masses, but it is a cool innovation and I wouldn't be surprised to see a market at that price point. Would be great to hear some opinions from amateur or professional pilots.

My own "flying car" consists of a Grumman AA-5B and a Montague X50. The former is an airplane that can fly half again as high and as fast as a Transition, twice as far, carrying twice the payload. The latter, a full-sized folding bicycle that fits easily in the baggage compartment. Total up-front cost about $50,000. So for me, Terrafugia is offering the ability to pay an extra $200,000 to avoid a daily 20-minute bike ride. I think I will pass on this bargain.

Others may find it more useful. Many older pilots have over the years accumulated sufficient wealth to afford a quarter-megabuck airplane along with sufficient infirmities that bicycle-riding is no longer practical. Some people routinely travel to destinations that aren't within practical bicycling distance of the nearest airport. Some will want the essential coolness of a true "flying car", or at least the impression it will generate on arrival. Some, mostly silly rich people, will balk at the idea of buying a used airplane, which reduces the price penalty of a new Transition. And, eventually, there will be used Transitions on the market for $100K or so. I am skeptical that these markets will add up to a sufficient customer base to keep the Transition economically viable, but it is good that someone is trying to find out.

My more serious concern is that while, to Terrafugia's credit, the Transition does about what they said it would do, it cannot live up to the "flying car" hype that others have attached to it. In particular, it does still require an airport. No, you cannot take off from or land on any convenient stretch of road. Really, you can't. There are almost no roads where that would be legal, and the only ones where it would be remotely safe are inconveniently in the middle of nowhere.

Also, while it is a Light Sport Aircraft, you cannot use it as a personal transportation system on the basis of twenty hours of flight instruction. Light Sport training is minimally sufficient for recreational sightseeing flights from a county airport on lazy Sunday afternoons. While it wouldn't actually be illegal to duplicate my daily commute (Lancaster to Hawthorne, CA) with a freshly-minted Light Sport license, it would be unwise and dangerous. Private Pilot + 100 hours, would be about right.

Finally, note the useful load - a full tank of gas, plus 320 pounds. That isn't even two FAA-standard adults, much less two actual supersized American adults. Again, this is the vehicle for people who won't spend twenty minutes on a bicycle. Putting a second seat *and* a baggage compartment in this thing borders on false advertising.

As a proof-of-concept technology demonstrator, I like this. And I hope enough sensible optimists buy the thing to work out the bugs and figure out what its successors might be good for. I fear that enough silly rich people will buy this thing to produce a body count that the FAA cannot ignore. The Transition is a not-impossibly-expensive way to earn some early-adopter coolness points playing with the technologies that might someday give us an actual flying car. It is also a poor airplane, a poor car, and absolutely not an actual flying car.

I knew it.

The nice thing about the Transition is that in case of bad weather you can always land it and drive it home. That makes flying a much more attractive means of transport since at the moment pilots often spend many hours grounded at some out-of-the-way landing strip due to unexpected weather.

In my experience, modern weather forecasting has improved to the point where this is rarely an issue - either you know before you set out that you won't be able to fly home on schedule (in which case you'll drive a proper car both ways), or you're dealing with a brief weather transient (in which case you'll wait a few hours). I'd have to check my logbooks to be sure, but maybe one flight out of a hundred winds up with me spending an unplanned night in a motel. Annoying, but not $200K annoying.


Something like the Helipod looks more practical today given the advances in materials, flight automation and electric hybrid technology.

There is the EU-funded MyCopter project looking at PAVs for public transportation.

Any minute now...

I suppose I simply missing the relevance. Why does this think imply we're out of any TGS? There's no really new technology--it could have been built 20 years ago I suspect. It's not really a viable commuter vehicle -- you are not going to land in your driveway, the office parking garage or the local shopping center parking.

Moreover, does anyone think this novelty is ushering in some new period of economic growth that will change the levels or growth rates in either of the two metrics (median income, total factor productivity) Tyler has pointed to in making the argument?

No, but it's a neat toy. And everything that relates to TGS helps keep the TGS meme floating a little longer.

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