Mass-pro­duced fly­ing car is close to re­al­ity

The Star Early Edition - - INTERNATIONAL - Josh Dean

THE first time Carl Di­et­rich brought his fly­ing-car con­cept to the Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual AirVen­ture gath­er­ing in Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin, he had only a video to show the avi­a­tion geeks who wan­dered by his mod­est stall. The fol­low­ing year, he brought the mock-up of a wing. Six years later, in July 2013, he was fi­nally ready to fly the pro­to­type.

As the an­nouncer who in­tro­duced the Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion put it: “Ladies and gen­tle­men, this is one of the most in­cred­i­ble things we’ve seen, ever, here at Oshkosh. Twen­ty­five min­utes ago, this was a street-le­gal au­to­mo­bile. Now, it’s in the air.”

Pi­lot Phil Ma­teer buzzed the crowd while the an­nouncer patched into his cock­pit mi­cro­phone to ask him how it felt up there. “I’m in a car look­ing down on traf­fic,” Ma­teer replied. “And it flies real nice.”

The prom­ise of a mass-pro- duced fly­ing car has taunted avi­a­tion en­thu­si­asts for gen­er­a­tions, Bloomberg Pur­suits mag­a­zine will re­port in its Hol­i­day 2014 is­sue. How­ever, Di­et­rich is to­day closer than any­one since pi­lot Moul­ton Tay­lor’s ill-fated at­tempt to make the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) ap­proved Ae­ro­car in the 1950s.

“What Carl and his team are do­ing is a re-cre­ation of that same dream, with another lifetime’s worth of tech­nol­ogy, com­put­ing, crash wor­thi­ness and aero­dy­namic mod­el­ling,” says Jake Schultz, a tech­ni­cal an­a­lyst at Boe­ing and au­thor of A Drive in the Clouds: The Story of the Ae­ro­car.

More than a hun­dred peo­ple have paid de­posits of $1 000 (R109 376) each for the Tran­si­tion, which will be ca­pa­ble of 110km an hour on the road and 177km an hour in the sky when it fi­nally comes to the mar­ket within the next three years.

Di­et­rich is re­fin­ing de­tails on the third-gen­er­a­tion pro­to­type of his $279 000 ve­hi­cle be­fore at­tempt­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by both the FAA, which reg­u­lates planes, and the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which over­sees cars.

A year after that tri­umphant flight in Oshkosh, Di­et­rich, 37, sits in his sparsely dec­o­rated of­fice at Ter­rafu­gia’s mod­est head­quar­ters be­hind a Best Western in Woburn, Mas­sachusetts.

We had seven peo­ple write us cheques for a prod­uct that didn’t even ex­ist yet.

He says he first pro­posed a fly­ing car as a doc­toral can­di­date in aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the nearby Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where he part­nered with a pair of Sloan School of Man­age­ment stu­dents and two other en­gi­neers (in­clud­ing the woman who’s now his wife) to win sec­ond place in the 2006 MIT $100K En­trepreneur­ship Com­pe­ti­tion.

That same year, Di­et­rich also won a $30 000 Lemel­sonMIT Na­tional Col­le­giate Stu­dent Prize, part of which he put to­wards that ini­tial trip to Oshkosh, where he met his first an­gel in­vestors and even signed up prospec­tive buy­ers.

“We had seven peo­ple write us cheques for a prod­uct that didn’t even ex­ist yet,” Di­et­rich re­calls. “That’s a pretty pow­er­ful in­di­ca­tor that peo­ple re­ally want this.”

One rea­son the Tran­si­tion is fur­ther along than any pre­vi­ous fly­ing-car con­cept is that, in 2004, the FAA cre­ated the so­called light sport air­craft (LSA) des­ig­na­tion for planes that weigh less than 600kg and seat no more than two peo­ple.

LSA man­u­fac­tur­ers are given an eas­ier path to mar­ket in or­der to en­cour­age en­trepreneur­ship and in­no­va­tion in a niche of the in­dus­try that has seen very lit­tle of ei­ther.

“Per­sonal avi­a­tion is ba­si­cally a fun, ex­pen­sive hobby,” Di­et­rich says. “My goal is to ac­tu­ally make it use­ful.”

Crit­ics say fly­ing cars are un­likely to be both great air­planes and great cars. But that misses the point, says Di­et­rich, who ex­plains the Tran­si­tion is in­tended to ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of an air­plane.

First and fore­most is that small planes are vir­tu­ally use­less in in­clement weather. If a storm rolls in while you’re fly­ing the Tran­si­tion, on the other hand, you can sim­ply land at many of the 5 000-plus air­ports in the US, push a but­ton to fold up the wings and hit the road un­til con­di­tions im­prove.

At home, you can park it on the street or in the typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban garage.

And it runs on reg­u­lar un­leaded petrol, which is cheaper and cleaner than avi­a­tion fuel.

That makes the Tran­si­tion ideal for week­end jaunts or for sales peo­ple and oth­ers whose jobs re­quire reg­u­lar trips of a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres – although, at the ex­pected price, even he ad­mits it won’t be within reach of your av­er­age sales­per­son any­time soon. – Bloomberg

The Ter­rafu­gia Tran­si­tion is a fly­ing car. It is clas­si­fied as a light sport air­craft and can seat two peo­ple. It is ideal for week­end jaunts but its price tag is out of most peo­ple’s reach. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

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