This Flying Car is No Flight of Fancy

April 16, 2012
Thanks to the emergence of lightweight composite materials -- and a 2004 FAA rule that made it easier to get a pilot's license -- MIT grad Carl Dietrich believes the time might be right for the flying car to finally take off.

Carl Dietrich remembers being "fascinated with aviation from a young age" -- so much so that he began saving for his pilot's license when he was eight years old.

"I got it as soon as I could in high school," Dietrich says.

But soon after, Dietrich says he "ran out of time and money," and realized that flying isn't the most practical hobby.

Since then, Dietrich -- who went on to earn his Ph.D. from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT -- has been on a mission to change that.

"I really had that desire to try to make it more practical, to make it more useful, to make it a bigger part of life," Dietrich tells IndustryWeek.

"Because it's a fantastic experience. It's something that I wish everybody could enjoy having that sort of freedom, that sort of flexibility of flying your own aircraft around. It's a pretty amazing thing."

A production prototype of the Transition flying car on its first flight
Dietrich, who is CEO, CTO and co-founder of Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia (Latin for "escape the earth"), believes his company's Transition could be the answer.

The Transition is a two-seat personal aircraft that gives pilots the flexibility to fold up the plane's wings, drive it on any surface road, and park it in a single-car garage. The flying car's base price is $279,000 -- a bargain in the world of general aviation.

Terrafugia already has taken 100 reservations for the Transition, which completed its first test flight in March.

On Friday, IndustryWeek caught up with Dietrich and asked him about the impetus for the Transition -- and what makes it different from previous attempts at developing a flying car.

IW: How did you get involved in this project?

CD: I would say that the real catalyst for me to take the idea seriously was the emergence of the Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft rule in 2004.

This was a very significant rule change that the FAA implemented. It created a new type of pilot's license that takes half the time and half the money to get, lowering the barriers to entry for new potential customers for the GA market.

It also reduced the barriers to entry for new companies bringing products to the marketplace, reducing the capital requirements to bring that product to market and enabling a higher potential return on investment.

So once that rule change came about, that was kind of the spark that got me thinking, 'OK, what could we do that would have the potential to have a significant impact on this old industry?'

And it turned out that a former professor of mine at MIT had already statistically quantified the four largest obstacles to the more widespread of general aviation [in a survey of pilots].

... The biggest obstacle that pilots face is weather sensitivity -- little airplanes are just very fundamentally sensitive to bad weather conditions.

And that's a big problem, because if the weather gets bad when you're away on a trip, you can actually be stuck somewhere. You could be in a position where you're forced to find alternative means of getting home.

So today you really can't count on [getting where you want to go regardless of the weather] unless you're spending $600,000, $700,000 for a fully instrument-capable aircraft, and you're maintaining a level of proficiency on par with commercial pilots.

... So we hit that obstacle pretty hard with the Transition in terms of giving the pilot the flexibility to drive when the weather is bad. That's something that really doesn't exist in the marketplace today.

The second-biggest obstacle that pilots face is cost. Flying by GA aircraft is an expensive activity.

So we're addressing both in terms of the initial pricepoint -- lowering that pricepoint for a vehicle that you can count on to get where you want to go no matter what happens with the weather -- and also in terms of the recurring costs of ownership.

The Transition burns premium unleaded gasoline, which is about 35% less expensive than aviation fuel. Also, you don't have to rent a hangar for the Transition -- you can keep it at home in your garage, reducing the storage costs.

So there are some pretty significant ways that the Transition addresses the cost barrier.

Obviously it's still not going to be in reach of the majority of the population yet. But we're taking a very significant step in the right direction.

IW: Terrafugia's website asserts that while previous attempts to develop a flying car have failed, the Transition 'has the advantage of modern engines, composite materials and computer-based avionics.' Can you tell us about the technology on the Transition?

CD: It might help to reference the last attempt that's come the closest to success, which was Molt Taylor's Aerocar. ... And that was certified in 1956.

So as you can imagine, there's been quite a lot of technology that's been developed over the past 50 years-plus.

And carbon fiber is a very significant one of those key technologies. [It provides] a much higher strength-to-weight ratio and stiffness-to-weight ratio than aluminum.

And that can have a significant impact on the performance of an aircraft. And it can make those trade-offs that are implicit in a vehicle that is designed to do two things have less of an impact than they've ever had before.

... With the Transition, we've pioneered a carbon-fiber safety cage. It's probably the lightest carbon-fiber safety cage in the world that is capable of meeting federal motor-vehicle safety standards.

So the combination of the safety cage and the crumple zone to meet those federal motor-vehicle safety standards is a significant advance.

Actually, when Molt Taylor completed his design, that was before there was any regulation of the automotive industry really to speak of. ... Shortly after that, the federal motor-vehicle safety standards came into being. And Taylor's design, which had been certified by the [Civil Aeronautics Administration] -- the precursor to the FAA -- was not able to comply with those automotive standards.

So Terrafugia's Transition is really the first vehicle that complies with both sets of regulations.

IW: What kind of engine does the Transition have?

CD: We use the Rotax 912 ULS, which is a 100-horsepower certified aircraft engine that's been flying since 1989. And it's in use in over 70% of the light sport aircraft fleet today -- so it's a proven workhorse of an engine.

And it's the question stopper. Whenever you're talking to a pilot who's been around the industry for a while, one of the first questions they ask is, 'What's the engine?' And if you say the Rotax 912 ULS, that's the end of that line of questioning -- it's onto the next thing that they're concerned about.

And the thing that's great about it for us is not only does it have an exceptional power-to-weight ratio, which is key because of the aluminum block and the gear-reduction box on it, which allows the crankshaft to turn at a higher RPM -- but it also is FAA-certified to run on super unleaded automotive gasoline.

That's a key thing for our customers, because it's so much less expensive. And with the Transition, you're going to be driving on the road anyway, so you might as well pull into a gas station and fill it up like you fill your car up.

So it's all about pushing down the barriers to entry.

This is Part 1 in a two-part conversation. Look for Part 2 later this week.

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About the Author

Josh Cable | Former Senior Editor

Former Senior Editor Josh Cable covered innovation issues -- including trends and best practices in R&D, process improvement and product development. He also reported on the best practices of the most successful companies and executives in the world of transportation manufacturing, which encompasses the aerospace, automotive, rail and shipbuilding sectors. 

Josh also led the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, IW’s annual tribute to the most influential executives and thought leaders in U.S. manufacturing history.

Before joining IndustryWeek, Josh was the editor-in-chief of Penton Media’s Government Product News and Government Procurement. He also was an award-winning beat reporter for several small newspapers in Northeast Ohio.

Josh received his BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green University, and continued his professional development through course-work at Ohio University and Cuyahoga Community College.

A lifelong resident of the Buckeye State, Josh currently lives in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find him riding his bike to work, exercising his green thumb in the backyard or playing ultimate Frisbee.  

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