We at Flying know airplanes pretty well, but when it comes to flying cars (or “roadable aircraft” as the manufacturers prefer to call them), we have questions just like you. So on the eve of the New York International Auto Show, where Terrafugia is bringing its flying . . . er . . . roadable aircraft, we spoke with Terrafugia’s Richard Gersh, the company’s VP of business development, about what happens when you drive out the airport gate and the rubber meets the road.
1. How are the "car" wheels connected to the powerplant?
It turns out that the drive wheels are connected to the engine much like they are in a car, through a transmission, a continuously variable transmission in this case. The driver selects the mode using a shifter; when the vehicle is in drive mode, the prop is automatically disconnected from the drive shaft.
2. What's the top speed of the car?
Well, Terrafugia isn’t saying exactly, which might mean that it’s not as fast as they think you’ll want it to be. Then again, they do promise it will “maintain highway speeds,” though what speed that is exactly, again, they’re not saying. Gersh did make an excellent point when I asked him if it would do the 80 mph speed limit on I-10 between San Antonio and El Paso. In such an instance, he said, why wouldn’t you want to fly?
3. Let’s say you wanted to get a shot of power on the road. Could you, In a pinch, use the prop to get an extra boost?
The answer, sadly, is no. When the wings are folded in drive mode, the prop isn’t connected. Of course, if the traffic were bad and you wanted to pull over, extend the wings, start the prop and take off, beating rush hour traffic in the process, there’s nothing to prevent you from doing that. Nothing, that is, except common sense and dozens of traffic and potentially criminal laws, that is. Then again, you could always head over to a nearby airport and take to the skies.
4. Is it freeway legal and safe?
The short answer, according to Gersh is, “yes.” Since vehicle safety standards are federal standards, Terrafugia was able to confirm with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the Transition will indeed be street legal, and it will have such safety features as airbags to make it so. Emissions are a foggier subject. Because they are governed by both federal and state regulators, it’s harder to say for sure here. Gersh does point out that Terrafugia has gotten preliminary approval from all 50 states for the vehicle. Probably more importantly, the EPA has come out and said, according to Gersh, that the Transition is an airplane for purposes of emissions and the Clean Air act, meaning the Transition, just like your Bonanza, is exempt from the law's provisions.
5. The visibility looks limited in back and for the blind spots. How do drivers deal with that?
Through technology! The Transition is outfitted with two systems to help drivers see what other traffic is around them. In car mode the side view mirrors will extend to help the driver see traffic traveling in his blind spot. A rear camera system, common on roadable sport utes the world around today, will help the driver see what’s approaching from his “Six.”
6. When it comes to aviation maintenance, how do you count aircraft hours versus car hours?
This one’s cut and dried, says Gersh. Any time the engine’s running, the maintenance clock is ticking. The Transition’s engine, by the way, is the Rotax 912 ULS with a recommended time between overhaul of 2,000 hours. Those 2,000 hours can be accumulated on the airways or driving to Safeway.
7. What about insurance? Allstate or Avemco?
Good question, says Gersh. The issue is still not resolved, but he told Flying that he’s “highly confident” that the insurance on this hybrid vehicle will be some kind of hybrid insurance, with the concerns of both aviation and highway underwriters taken into account. No word on how much that coverage will cost.