Winners and Losers: An Aviation Loser

Remember the days when inventors were sure that the future of transportation lay with road vehicles that could be reconfigured into flying machines (like big Transformers). Well, if one small engineering firm could have its way, those days would be back these days. In "Loser: Grounded", associate editor Sandra Upson tells us that the airplane-car concept has been given a 21st-Century makeover, but that the idea is still unlikely to take-off anytime soon.

Upson informs us that start-up Terrafugia, of Cambridge, Mass., has developed a vehicle it describes as a "roadable aircraft." The Transition, according to the company, is an airplane prototype suited for limited operation on land—or a plane primarily that can be operated as a car occasionally. Still, the question that all past dalliances into this concept have encountered is just as valid today: Will this solution be the best of both worlds—or the worst? Basically, a car is safer and more stable when it's heavier, while a plane flies better when it's lightweight, Upson notes.

Having completed plans for the prototype, Terrafugia hopes to acquire funding to build the first model by 2008. To hide the fact that the Transition is a flimsy car and a feeble plane, Terrafugia designed the vehicle to weigh just under 600 kilograms, the cutoff for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's new light-sport aircraft class, writes Upson.

The Transition looks like a stubby little plane affixed to a four-wheel platform. At the push of a button, the wings would tuck in alongside the body. With bumpers on both ends, the car-shaped body would cause the Transition to experience more drag and fly at lower speeds than other light-sport aircraft. Unlike those on normal planes, its wings would be flat on the bottom so that they could fold completely, which will reduce the Transition's aerodynamics. And that's the good news.

The proposed machine fares far worse as a car, Upson tells us. Although 600 kg isn't unreasonable for a light prop plane, it is decidedly wispy for a car—much lighter than a Mini Cooper. A strong gust of wind could cause the Transition to fishtail. To make things worse, its folded wings would create mammoth blind spots on a vehicle the length of a large pickup truck and would make for a lot of bended fenders.

When Upson sought the judgment of IEEE Fellow Gordon Bell (see our cover story on him from a year ago) on the Transition concept, the famous computer architect said of Terrafugia's young founder: "If he builds one, it may be good training. No harm done. Every decade, someone should try to build one."

It's a good rule of thumb. We probably should admire those who attempt such a challenge once a decade. However, for failing to incorporate the lessons of history in transportation design, we have to nominate the latest attempt at a flying car a technological loser.

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