Terrafugia vision: Takeoff, autoland in driveway

May 7, 2013

Terrafugia said its TF-X will take off and land vertically, using quiet electric motors.

It sounds like a scene from a sci-fi film: You hear there’s traffic on the highway, so you pull your car out of the garage, unfold the electrically powered rotors, and lift off from the driveway. Before you know it, you’re zipping along at 200 mph, and at your destination the vehicle (car? helicopter? airplane? tiltrotor?) lands itself.

Terrafugia, the Massachusetts-based company currently flight- and drive-testing its Transition “street-legal airplane,” announced May 6 that it has its eye on an even bolder vision down the road: a four-seat, hybrid power, semiautonomous, vertical-takeoff-and-land personal automobile.

A flying car in every driveway?

“It’s a concept,” said Terrafugia’s Richard Gersh. “And if you’re not ambitious with a concept we don’t feel you should even undertake it. This is a vision we have.”

Gersh said the company is dedicated to getting the Transition, a carbon-fiber light sport aircraft with folding wings and a 93-knot cruise speed, to market, but that the company felt the time was right to announce “that we are spending some time and resources on the future.” He said development was expected to be in the eight- to 10-year range, but that there will be a number of hurdles as Terrafugia found with the Transition. When a Transition prototype first flew in 2009, the company had expected deliveries to start in 2011.

The TF-X concept will carry four people “in car-like comfort,” have a range in flight of 500 miles, and fit in a standard-construction single-car garage, according to Terrafugia. It is meant to take off vertically from a level clearing of at least 100 feet in diameter using two 600-horsepower electric motor pods that tilt forward after takeoff; a 300-hp engine then kicks in before the propellers on the motor pods fold for cruise.

“Just tell it where you want to go,” a video on the Terrafugia website advertises. “It flies for you.” Gersh said the company expects software capabilities and avionics improvements to make it far easier for an individual to fly a vehicle like the TF-X in the future, although it is not intended to be fully autonomous. The website says it should take the average driver no more than five hours of training to learn how to operate the TF-X safely. It is expected to have autoland capabilities as well.

Since the craft is still in the concept stage, many details are yet to be determined, Gersh said, among them how it will be classified by regulatory authorities. He said Terrafugia has had preliminary discussions with a number of regulators, and “conceptually speaking, they have given us their support.”

Terrafugia has long resisted the Jetsons connotations carried by the term “flying car,” instead referring to it as a “roadable” aircraft and then a “street-legal airplane.” But the newly redesigned website embraces the moniker, with “We make flying cars” emblazoned above a rendering of the TF-X in flight. The company plans to display the Transition prototype at EAA AirVenture 2013 after an absence in 2012. Terrafugia is not releasing a date of expected certification.