The Next Step for Flying Cars Is Flying On Their Own

It's like a plane, train, and automobile all in one package.

Feb 26 2014, 10:40pm
Image: Terrafugia

I might sound like something that belongs in The Jetsons rather than real life, but the flying car is inching ever closer to reality. So while any company has yet to bring such a device to market, one of the key players in the scene is shifting its focus to another hurdle entirely: not just getting the car off the ground, but making it an autonomous vehicle for safer and more comfortable travel.

Speaking at a tech conference at MIT over the weekend that was covered by Computerworld, Carl Dietrich, the CEO and co-founder of the Woburn, Mass.-based company Terrafugia, opened up about the company's future plans now that it's managed to overcome many of the technological and regulatory hurdles that had been holding its first airborne vehicle, The Transition, back from the roads. And the skies.

The company has been successfully testing The Transition's flight capabilities (and its driving ones) since March of 2012. By that point, it had already gotten approval for the vehicle from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since the regulatory agency had decided to classify it as a "Light Sport Aircraft" back in 2010, meaning that customers would only need 20 hours of flight time to be able to use it.

Since then, Terrafugia has regularly pushed back the tentative release date for The Transition. The company told the Wall Street Journal last August that it's now planning to start shipping the things some time "between early 2015 and early 2016." That's still a while off (though you can reserve one now if you want!), but Dietrich said that Terrafugia is now turning its attention to another concern: making the flying car "practical.

"We want something that is statistically safer than driving a car," Dietrich said at the MIT Tech Conference. "We think that's possible. It needs to be faster than driving a car. It needs to be simpler to operate than a plane. It needs to be more convenient than driving a car today. It needs to be sustainable in the long run."

The Transition is a relatively small, two-seat car designed for light air travel when necessary—Dietrich has been quoted in many articles saying that it's intended to solve the "last mile problem." Terrafugia's new prototype, called the TF-X, sounds like an SUV in comparison: a four seat, plug-in hybrid vehicle that may not even require the pilot to, well, pilot the thing.

"It will even plan the route for you," Dietrich said. "There's still an operator deciding if it's safe to take off. Is it safe to land here? But it doesn't take a lot of training to make these decisions. Is it safe is an easy decision to make...This is starting now and its very, very exciting."

It's hard to take all of this seriously considering that the company still hasn't released any flying car, autonomous or not. But self-driving isn't necessarily the craziest part of the concept. Mobile companies and automobile manufacturers alike have been championing smart car technology at last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress (MWC) this week in Barcelona.

Meanwhile, various manufacturers have been working on autonomous vehicles for years now. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee devote an early chapter of their new book The Second Machine Age to Google's car, and say that it already worked "flawlessly" during a drive they took in the summer of 2012.

Taking the technology to the skies is another matter entirely, however. It would require a dedicated infrastructure of highway-like networks to be safe and manageable. Which raises an important question: why invest in something like a flying car in the first place when there are plenty of other futuristic ideas that are more akin to mass transit? Car use has already been in decline in the US since 2005, after all. And if you're not even driving the driverless flying car of the future, couldn't you save the money on gas by, say, taking the Hyperloop instead?

Both of these are highly speculative technologies. No offense to Elon Musk, but his 700-mile-per-hour pod delivery system is probably the less realistic of the two. But as Samuel R. Staley of Florida State University wrote when the concept was first introduced last August, we shouldn't judge the value of such "mega-projects" by the "technical merits" alone.

"These projects need to do more than satisfy the egos of engineers and futurists," Staley wrote for CNN. "Their social impact and practical importance depend crucially on their ability to deliver broad-based benefits in tangible ways that become the foundation for long-term sustainability."