Terrafugia dreams of flying robot cars. The idea goes beyond some weird mash-up of science fiction tropes and aims at the practical issues of how to transform flying cars into vehicles for the masses. That means eliminating the need for drivers of vehicles capable of taking to the skies to get pilot’s licenses.
The Massachusetts-based company hopes to eventually move toward a semi-autonomous flying car called the TF-X. That flying car concept represents a class of “computer-controlled” vehicles featuring an automatic flight mode, auto-landing mode and the ability to automatically navigate around flight hazards, says Carl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia. Dietrich laid out his company’s vision during the Imagination series of talks at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“With a higher level of automation in a cockpit, we could make operating an aircraft actually easier than driving a car today; you just tell it where to go,” Dietrich said. “This kind of paradigm shift could allow non-pilots to learn how to safely operate a personal aircraft in as little as one weekend.”
A “practical flying car for the masses” requires the vehicle to be “safely operable by non-pilots,” Dietrich said. He envisions flying car owners as simply making high-level decisions about telling their vehicle where to go and then trusting the computer to fly the vehicle there.
Still, the flying car future as envisioned by “The Jetsons” needs more than just highly automated vehicles. Most flying car prototypes currently under development, such as Terrafugia’s Transition, resemble light aircraft that can fold up their wings and drive on roads like cars. Such a vehicle serves the needs of licensed pilots who want to enjoy flying more conveniently, but won’t help daily commuters seeking to avoid traffic gridlock on the way to work. That’s because they still require runways and airports to get airborne, which means they can’t replace the typical commute between home and the office.
The current airport infrastructure in the U.S. can only support about 200,000 planes, Dietrich pointed out. A flying car that requires airport runways would be severely limited by that infrastructure in trying to become a vehicle for the masses. Instead, Terrafugia wants the more futuristic TF-X flying car to combine the advantages of plug-in hybrid cars and robotic self-driving cars with the freedom of personal air travel in a way that goes beyond today’s mass airline travel. Dietrich explained how it might work:
TF-X is a plugin hybrid electric vehicle. You park it at home in your garage, charge it up like a normal hybrid vehicle today, drive it along the roads and highways just like you drive a normal car today, and take off and land vertically from small helipads using quiet and clean electric propulsion. We have vertical takeoff in areas where we don’t want to wake up the neighbors.
Replacing the flying car’s need for a runway with just a helipad the size of a tennis court makes the possibility of flying car commutes much more realistic. A flying car owner in the suburbs could simply drive his or her car down the street to the local helipad shared by the neighborhood. Even a relatively dense city such as New York City has room for about 400 helipads, especially in areas near the West Side Highway and the bottom of Manhattan Island, Dietrich said. There would be no helipads taken up by parked vehicles, ideally, because the flying cars would simply park at the usual garage, parking lots or street spots.
A flying car with the capabilities of the TF-X could transform a typical one-hour commute into a 15 minute commute, Dietrich suggested. That could translate into huge economic savings from the perspective of time lost while sitting in traffic. For example, the Terrafugia CEO said that flying cars might save an estimated $250 million a year in terms of time value for commuters going into San Francisco.
Both technical and regulatory challenges must be overcome before this vision of flying cars could possibly become a reality. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has no clear certification for this kind of flying vehicle just yet, but Terrafugia has been working with the government regulators to determine how its more immediate Transition flying car might be certified.
The more futuristic TF-X robotic flying cars would also need to “talk” with one another. This vehicle-to-vehicle communication would allow them to queue up for takeoffs and landings and avoid midair collisions—the job that air traffic controllers typically perform for centralized airports.
Any airworthy car would also need to be maintained according to stringent safety standards and have the ability to handle emergency scenarios—whether on its own or with the assistance of the human pilot or operator. The recent crash of a flying car prototype designed by Aeromobil serves as a reminder of the potential perils facing a flying vehicle.
Still, the flying car dream is tough to kill. Terrafugia already has a US $37 million backlog of orders from customers who want to buy its Transition flying car. More than half of those customers don’t have piloting experience, which suggests that even the more limited type of flying car represented by the Transition is drawing strong interest outside its private pilot market niche. Terrafugia aims to ship its first Transitions in less than two years and watch the flying car business take off from there.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.