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Terrafugia Roadable Aircraft Moves Closer to Reality

By Max Trescott
Terrafugia
The Transition’s wings are foldable for use on the road. It’s the only roadable airplane that can be converted from airplane to car in under a minute.

November 18, 2010 —This week, with the publication of Terrafugia's request for four exemptions from the federal motor vehicle code, its Transition model, a roadable aircraft, moves one step closer to your garage. In fact, if all goes well, Terrafugia’s first production flying car will leave the factory in just 13 months. Cofounder Carl Dietrich was demonstrating their original car/Light-Sport Aircraft at West Coast locations this week. Before a group of about 50 people at the Palo Alto Airport in Palo Alto, California, he said the “general public is fascinated with the idea that there could be a practical flying car. It’s intoxicating.”

That fascination has led to unprecedented media exposure for a new general aviation aircraft. For example, Time magazine has named the Transition among the 50 Best Inventions of 2010. And Hammacher Schlemmer has placed the Transition on the cover of their Christmas catalog. Brand recognition studies show that 50 percent of pilots already recognize the Terrafugia name.

The proof-of-concept vehicle, which flew at AirVenture 2009, has been retired, and a new improved version is scheduled for first flight at AirVenture 2011. Dietrich says the company has a reasonable chance of shipping the first production cars just five months later in December 2011. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Major changes to the vehicle include moving the engine from the front of the car to the middle and removing the canard, which also served as a full-width front bumper, required for passenger vehicles. Terrafugia, working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was able to get the Transition reclassified under the multipurpose vehicle category, which allows a shorter bumper. To qualify, a vehicle only has to demonstrate "occasional off-road use," for which the Transition clearly qualifies.

But there are some multipurpose vehicle category requirements that clearly don't make sense for an airplane that occasionally uses the road. On November 16, 2010, the Federal Register published Terrafugia's request for four exemptions. One would allow the Transition to use a polycarbonate windscreen instead of safety glass, so a bird strike doesn’t spider out the glass and a pilot can still see to land. Most multipurpose vehicles have a high center of gravity, so electronic stability control is required. By contrast, the Transition has a very low center of gravity and has no need for such a system.

Although the Transition has airbags, Terrafugia is requesting an exemption from the advanced airbag requirement, since it would require significant capital investment. The company is also requesting an exemption from the requirement to use a multipurpose tire. Although Terrafugia plans to use Department of Transportation rated wheels, none of the multipurpose vehicle wheels are small enough for a vehicle as light as the Transition. The public is invited to comment on the exemption requests here.

Dietrich feels there's a good public safety argument for approving the exemption requests, since the company will bring federal motor vehicle safety features to general aviation. “The Transition has an integrated safety cage, crumple zones, air bags, and we have done simulated crash testing of the vehicle,” Dietrich said. “All of these features do make it more crash resistant even when flying, not just driving. As a consequence, I expect this vehicle to set the by far the highest bar for safety for the light-sport aviation industry.”

The cost is expected to be less than $250,000. But with a backlog of 90 vehicles, new purchasers may have to wait several years to get one. For pilots interested in getting one sooner, Dietrich has a suggestion: “Buy one from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.”

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