Since the days of the Jetsons, people have been dreaming of flying cars that would be able to carry passengers high above the gridlocked traffic below. Now, as the urban air mobility (UAM) sector gains momentum with more VTOL designs and air taxis on drawing boards, the mainstream media is more than happy to call these developing designs “flying cars” when in fact they are not cars at all.
It is against this backdrop that Terrafugia has announced a giant step towards making a road-legal car that also legally flies by announcing that FAA has granted a special airworthiness certificate for certification of their Transition roadable airplane in the light sport category (S-LSA), making the vehicle now legal for flight. Terrafugia will produce and sell initial flight-only versions and will evolve the driving portion of the Transition design, with the goal of being legal both in the sky and on the road in 2022.
“We chose to finalize and certify the flight side first because, in the early days of Terrafugia, some potential customers expressed interest in a flight-only version,” said Fred Bedard, Terrafugia’s manager of business development. “They wanted something that could fit in their garage that contained many of the benefits of Terrafugia bringing automotive-style safety into a general aviation vehicle, but they did not necessarily need the vehicle to be able to drive on public roads. Thus, we reasoned that the ability to produce a few intermediate products along the way to a full fly-and-drive version would also help our business mature. Unsurprisingly, no one expressed interest in a vehicle with wings that could not fly, so finalizing the ground drive side first did not make any sense.”
The work done by the Terrafugia team has been aimed recently at receiving the FAA certification. “We are excited to have reached our goal of an airworthiness certificate for the initial version,” said Kevin Colburn, vice president and general manager of Terrafugia. “During an extremely challenging pandemic year, our team remained focused, improved our quality system, completed the critical aspects of the design, built the vehicle, completed 80 days of flight testing, delivered 150 technical documents, and successfully passed the FAA audit. This is a major accomplishment that builds momentum in executing our mission.”
The initial version of the Transition provides pilots and flight schools with an aircraft featuring enhanced safety capabilities and the latest avionics. Powered by a 100-hp Rotax 912iS fuel-injected engine with a 2,000-hour TBO, the vehicle has a cruise speed of 100 mph and runs on either premium gasoline or 100LL. Standard features include a Dynon Skyview avionics package, an airframe parachute, four-wheel hydraulic disc brakes, a rigid carbon fiber safety cage, and folding wings to allow storage in a single-car garage.
Bedard explained that the flying-car concept has captured the imaginations of inventors for decades, with the first patent for the idea issued in 1918. In 2004, when FAA created the LSA category, it prompted five award-winning MIT graduates to found Terrafugia in 2006. The students believed that the new LSA category of aircraft, coupled with the recent advancement and availability of lightweight materials like carbon fiber—and the readily available infrastructure of more than 5,200 public-use airports in the US—meant that the conditions were finally right to develop a practical roadable airplane.
Terrafugia’s team of engineers, designers, and certification experts went to work on Transition, with the ultimate goal of both FAA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) certifications. In late 2017, Geely acquired Terrafugia as it eyed an entry into the aviation space, and the company became a member of the Geely Technology Group which also includes sister companies Volvo Cars, Lotus Cars, and CEVT. Terrafugia’s US headquarters has remained in Woburn, Massachusetts. A deeper look at the Transition is available here.