World's first flying car readying for takeoff

Aircraft that can fold up its wings and drive down the road is set for test flight

While it may seem like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, the flying car might soon become a reality.

A Massachusetts company founded four years ago by MIT graduates is getting ready to take its flying car -- or drivable aircraft -- on its first test flight either later this month or early in February. Richard Gersh, a vice president at Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia Inc., told Computerworld today that the company is preparing to take a prototype of the vehicle, dubbed The Transition, to an airport in upstate New York for its initial flight.

"We are very excited," said Gersh. "We are all very energized. To actually have it fly is a dream come true. I'm not sure it's up there with the Wright brothers but it's awfully close."

The two-seater vehicle fits into the light sport aircraft category and has an anticipated price tag of $148,000. Gersh said that the company so far has received more than 40 orders for The Transition. He hopes the first one will be in a customer's hands by next year.

Gersh noted that in the past several months the vehicle has been driven under its own power in on-road test drives and in tests of its taxiing capability at the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Andover, Mass. Then in December, The Transition was transported to upstate New York where it underwent high-speed taxiing tests, meaning that it was driven at higher speeds by its own propeller.

Now, Gersh Terrafugia said that Terrafugia has a test pilot lined up for the initial flight.

"We're not going to have a flying car, as people think of it, for a while," said Anna Dietrich, Terrafugia's chief operating officer, in a previous interview. "I would never say it's not going to happen, but today the infrastructure is not there, nor is the training, nor are the avionics that would make the training unnecessary. What makes sense right now is a 'roadable' aircraft."

Dietrich said the idea of a such a vehicle is what fired up the imaginations of Terrafugia's founders and pushed them to launch the company. The problem, however, is that the U.S. doesn't have the infrastructure to support vehicles that regularly fly and travel on surface roads. Unlike runways, roads pass in front of houses, grocery stores and office buildings. And a sky filled with people who don't have pilot's licenses could be problematic, to say the least.

"You have to be a pilot to fly The Transition," said Dietrich. "And we just really don't have the technology to have an autopilot built in so people can just get in it and say, 'Fly me to the grocery store.' It's an airplane designed to be flown by a pilot in the infrastructure we already have, which is the airports."

She added that there are about 6,000 public airports in the U.S., and most people are, on average, within 20 miles of one. The idea, she said, is to take advantage of this underutilized infrastructure. With a drivable aircraft, a pilot could fly into a small airport and, instead of getting a rental car or waiting for a taxi, he could simply fold up the wings on the plane and drive off.

Foldable wings, though, may not make some passengers feel safe in the sky. Dietrich said making sure the wings stay erect while in flight was one of Terrafugia's biggest engineering challenges.

"We tackled that one first," she added. "There are a number of interlocks in place -- some electrical, some mechanical. To activate the mechanism that folds or deploys the wings, you have to be on the ground."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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