x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Flying car prepares for takeoff

Feature Flying cars have got off the ground before but, more often than not, they have been the talk of fantasy and science fiction rather than reality.

The Transition, a combination car/airplane being developed by the US firm Terrafugia in Woburn, Massachusets, could be the design that succeeds in taking to the skies and transforming modern transportation.
The Transition, a combination car/airplane being developed by the US firm Terrafugia in Woburn, Massachusets, could be the design that succeeds in taking to the skies and transforming modern transportation.

Flying cars have got off the ground before but, more often than not, they have been the talk of fantasy and science fiction rather than reality. The first flying car, the Waterman Aerobile, managed take-off all the way back in 1937 while the Ford Motor Company seriously toyed with the wholesale production of a car with wings during the 1950s.

As a rule, though, the ideas have proved unsuccessful. One of the most recent flying cars was the AVE Mizar, which used the rear of a Cessna Skymaster with a Ford Pinto, but crashed during a test flight back in the 1970s, killing its developer, Henry Smolinski, and its pilot. The mastermind behind the latest effort, Carl Dietrich, is well aware of the potential perils but he is confident his creation, The Transition, will take to the skies and transform the motoring and aviation industry in the process.

Dietrich is the 31-year-old head of Terrafugia, a private company based in Woburn, Massachusetts, and insists it is not a flying car but a "roadable aircraft", a slightly less attractive moniker. The Transition will cost customers less than $200,000 (Dh735,000) and can be transformed from a car to an aeroplane in just 15 seconds. Added to that, it is powered by unleaded petrol so owners can simply fill up at their local garage before taking to the skies.

Since day one, Dietrich's motto has been "we can build one, we can make it work" despite sceptics suggesting it simply cannot be done. Initial tests suggest it will make it into the skies without any glitches. And there is already enough interest that Terrafugia has already had 50 different people pay the $10,000 (Dh37,000) up-front deposit for one of The Transitions. The current plan is to have them flying by mid-2010 depending on a raft of aviation and road tests it must first pass in the United States. But Dietrich is unfazed by any obstacles.

"We believe in what we're doing and believe it will be a success," he said. "There's a lot of interest already there and we're confident we can deliver this product to a lot of people. There seems to be a market in it - you wouldn't believe the press interest there's been from every country and continent." However, Dietrich admits the critics have a point. There is the safety aspect and driveability both on the ground and in the air to deal with, plus there is all manner of legal loopholes to get through for both the aviation and motoring industry, not to mention how on earth customers are going to get The Transition insured.

"There are some obstacles to overcome but we're in talks with all the relevant bodies and we feel we can get everything ticked off," said the ever-confident Dietrich, who set up his company with a $30,000 (Dh110,000) prize for the most innovative engineer at his school, the Massachusets Institute of Technology. His company has only been in existence since 2005, set up with one of his fellow students, Sam Schweigart, with whom he hit it off at the institute's rocket club. Since then, the pair have got a raft of other minds on board to get The Transition airborne, including some former Nasa engineers.

Despite his relative youth, Dietrich already boasts an impressive CV. His current work includes a rocket engine and PickProd, a blast-safe tool to help remove landmines that has been used by the United Nations among others. Dietrich traces the origins of his engineering passion to "building elborate spaceships from Fisher Price building sets and tree forts" in his parents' yard. He has clearly moved on to more ambitious projects since then but it hasn't gone to his head.

"I'd hesitate to call any of us visionaries," he said. "First and foremost, we are just simple, down-to-earth engineers." In fact, Dietrich, who boasts a car sticker stating "my next car will be an aeroplane", is so unassuming it seems remarkable that he is capable of producing such globally groundbreaking innovations. But how exactly will Dietrich's "next car" work? Simply speaking, it will be a four-wheel car but with suspension akin to a Formula 1 racer plus a GPS system with both road and air maps in place. It will have a simple steering wheel and, of course, a pair of 10-foot-wide wings folded up on its side.

The single-engine, rear-propeller plane part of it has a throttle and choke and is a straightforward stick-and-rudder plan, with the stick tucking away by the steering wheel when in car mode. It is compact enough to store away in the average American garage, which means owners will not be faced with exorbitant hangar fees for storing it at an airfield. But one wonders how he came up with such an invention apart from watching similar inventions on sci-fi films during his formative years.

It came about courtesy of a rule change from the aviation industry in the US which opened up the way for light-sport aircraft. To fly such an aircraft, pilots need just 20 hours of training time, half the usual amount required for a licence. To meet this new ruling, however, the car needs to weigh under 600kg. To put this into perspective, that is more than 100kg lighter than a Smart car. Dietrich readily admits it is another obstacle to overcome and, as a result of the lightweight frame and wings at its side, means that its driveability and safety on the roads could be called into question.

"I can't for a minute deny the fact that it's more sensitive to wind for a driver," he said. "That's not to do with its weight but the wings and its tail at the rear. There are some that say it won't be safe to take it out on the road but those days of the year are too rare for it to be a concern." The authorities might beg to differ. Terrafugia, under the guidance of Richard Gersh, who has been brought in to head up the company's business development, has already held meetings with road and civil aviation authorities in the US.

Under National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration rulings, The Transition has to include airbags, safety glass and must pass a simple crash test, which it has not yet taken. Should it pass all that, then it will be given the all-clear to hit America's roads. However, there is no chance of cars starting to take off on the roads if traffic becomes a problem. Such a manoeuvre would be illegal in the US so an airport - or at the very least an airstrip up to 2,500 feet long - is what's required. The one exception is Alaska, where budding pilots, under current state laws, are permitted to take off from public roads.

The other thing is that The Transition, which has been heavily tested in a wind tunnel, will only be capable of relatively short journeys. Terrafugia has set a flight maximum of about 460 miles (740km) on a 20-gallon (75-litre) tank of unleaded petrol. On the road, it will boast a top speed of 90mph (145kph) while that should rise to the 120mph (193kph) mark in the skies, all powered by a 100 brake horsepower engine.

With its dual role, there are fears owners will be hit with two separate insurance premiums for land and air travel but Dietrich is confident that the future of travel lies with his creation. "We're simply trying to make air travel more practical and affordable, which is what this is doing," he said. "Sure it's on the high end price wise for a car [the Lexus supercar is about the same price tag] but we believe we can overhaul driving and make it less time consuming, and fun."

All eyes will be on The Transition as it attempts to take to the skies. mmajendie@thenational.ae