The acquisition of flying car company Terrafugia by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China for an undisclosed sum seems likely to accelerate the long-awaited arrival to customer garages of what’s billed as the first practical flying car. It puts Terrafugia’s designs and ambition to transform personal aviation in the same corporate portfolio as Volvo, which has fared well under Geely ownership and is working with Uber to develop self-driving cars.
Terrafugia’s street-legal light sport aircraft dubbed Transition is now projected to reach the market in 2019, followed in 2023 by a four-seat, vertical-takeoff-and-landing version dubbed TF–X—a timeline that happens to line up with Uber’s ambitious plan to usher in a new generation of flying taxis and aerial Uber rides starting in 2020. Uber just signed a deal to buy as many as 24,000 self-driving Volvos in years to come. The potential synergy is self-evident.
Carl Dietrich founded Terrafugia in 2006 with a group of fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, and served as CEO until the Geely purchase. He will pocket an undisclosed sum and transition to the newly created role of Terrafugia's chief technology officer, according to the Nov. 13 announcement. Chris Jaran, former managing director of Bell Helicopter China, was named Terrafugia’s new chief executive.
“After working in the helicopter industry for over 30 years, and the aviation industry in China for 17 years, Terrafugia presents a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of a fledgling but enormously exciting industry,” Jaran said in the Nov. 13 press release. “The support that Geely has pledged to make Terrafugia’s vision of a flying car a commercial reality is unprecedented, and I assume this role with full of confidence for the future, with our first priority being the expansion of the company’s R&D capabilities.”
Terrafugia’s Transition prototype has two seats, folding wings, and an FAA exemption (which AOPA supported) that allows the 1,800-pound airplane to incorporate folding wings and other features that enable it to travel by road to an airport, unfold its wings, and fly on as a light sport aircraft. The Transition completed the initial phase of flight tests in 2012, but the company has not yet made a customer delivery. The Nov. 13 announcement noted that Terrafugia aims to deliver the first Transition in 2019.
Terrafugia announced the TF–X, a vertical-takeoff-and-landing concept, in 2013, and earned FAA approval to begin testing a scale-model version of the VTOL four-seater as a drone in late 2015. Terrafugia announced Nov. 13 that the full-size, four-seat TF–X is expected to reach the market in 2023, the same year Uber hopes to expand its fledgling air taxi service to multiple cities, according to an Uber engineer hired from NASA to lead the development of Uber's air transportation capacity.
While Terrafugia originally pitched the TF–X as an autonomous aircraft, such as in this 2015 video that animates early concept drawings, the remaining technical and regulatory obstacles to self-flying aircraft, along with public acceptance of the concept, may force a more incremental approach to autonomy.
While self-driving cars are already being tested on public roads, the small, electric aircraft that could democratize air taxi service (Uber aims to keep the price of an aerial ride comparable to an Uber X ride on the ground) will almost certainly require trained human pilots for many years to come, according to those working toward an autonomous future. Uber has been hiring engineering talent to help make the ambitious plan a reality, including former NASA unmanned aircraft traffic management program manager Tom Prevot, who took part in a panel discussion at Drone World Expo in October, newly installed as director of engineering of airspace systems at Uber.
Prevot and fellow panelists agreed that autonomy will take years longer to achieve in aircraft than in ground vehicles, and Prevot stressed that Uber’s first forays into the air will have trained human pilots at the controls, flying strictly VFR.
When a questioner noted that some companies are aiming to introduce autonomous aircraft on day one, “Our approach is ... a little more conservative,” Prevot said. He expressed confidence that Uber’s aerial passenger service will be flown under VFR by human pilots for many years, if not decades, given the relative complexity of integrating manned and unmanned aircraft, a more challenging set of problems than faced on public roads. Prevot said the year 2030 “might be the first time that I might think of … having autonomous flight,” though much will depend on how quickly regulators and the flying public come to accept computer-controlled aviation, and how efficiently it can be integrated.
Volvo has thrived in the years following Geely’s purchase of the Swedish car maker from Ford in 2010, a year after Volvo reported $653 million in losses on $12.4 billion in revenue. In 2016, Volvo reported a profit of $1.24 billion, and a record 534,332 cars sold worldwide (many of those already including some of the equipment needed to support a self-driving future). Newfound access to China’s fast-growing market explains much of that turnaround, though analysts also credit a largely hands-off approach by Geely that left much of the decision-making to Volvo’s staff, many of whom remained in place through the corporate transitions.
Geely, in the Nov. 13 announcement, suggested a similar approach that will include the creation of more jobs in the U.S. before the Transition and TF–X make their long-awaited arrivals. The company noted that Volvo invested more than $1 billion between 2015 and 2017 building a car factory in South Carolina that is expected to produce 100,000 cars a year, and employ nearly 4,000 workers, by way of establishing its commitment to invest in American communities and workers.
The company said that customer demand will influence the ultimate location of Terrafugia production facilities: “We are fully committed to investing in the USA with production and engineering facilities to satisfy market demand,” the company said.