Terrafugia Transition: Flying into the Future?

If all of the promises of science fiction had come to fruition this year, we would all be wearing Mylar jumpsuits, getting our daily dose of nutrients from soylent green (spoiler alert: it’s made of people!) and, of course, zooming around in flying cars.

Thankfully, soylent green had—shall we say—highly questionable marketability, but the idea of a flying car is way too fascinating a concept to purge from our collective conscience.

Like the personal jetpack, the idea of flying cars for the masses is a very liberating concept. Much as car ownership has afforded a great amount of personal freedom for drivers, a flying car offers an extra dimension of potential freedom, in terms of altitude.

Yet here we are in 2016, and the skies are largely clear, except for birds and civil aircraft (and, more recently, drones). So, once again, we wonder: Where are our flying cars?

Massachusetts-based aerospace/automobile company Terrafugia may have an answer to that question with their roadable aircraft solution: The Terrafugia Transition.

The Transition is touted as a hybrid car/aircraft that can be stored in the garage at home, driven on the street like a regular car and, after a small mechanical transition (to deploy the wings), take off from an airfield.

image001The Transition transforms from car to aircraft. (Image courtesy of Terrafugia.)

The Transition is built to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and is fully street-legal. That means the flying car can drive over a pothole at 40 mph without sustaining damage, just like any production vehicle. And, it’s also an aircraft.

Much of the Transition’s ability to perform both as a street-legal car and a light aircraft comes from the fact that Terrafugia used SOLIDWORKS CAD to iterate during the design phase.

According to Samuel Schweighart, vice president of engineering and co-founder of Terrafugia, “We put all our designs into SOLIDWORKS, then used the finite element analysis features to determine how much material we could cut out of the design without compromising Transition’s integrity as a road vehicle. SOLIDWORKS lets us be very precise, which was important because every ounce counts in this design.”

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A Sunday drive in the Transition. (Image courtesy of Terrafugia.)

Looking at the Transition as a car, the vehicle has rear-wheel drive and is operated via the typical steering wheel and pedal controls found in a conventional road car. Safety features include crumple zones and a roll cage, both designed to protect the occupants in the event of a crash on the ground. According to the Terrafugia website, the vehicle can seat two passengers side by side, and has enough cargo space for a set of golfclubs, more precisely characterized as a “useful load” of 500lbs. The Transition is powered by a rotary 100 hp Rotax 912iS engine capable of a top speed of 65 mph, with fuel economy reaching 35 mpg.

After a transformation that takes less than a minute, the electromechanical wings deploy automatically, extending out to a wingspan of 25 ft 6 in. The controls switch over to a control yoke and rudder pedals for flight, operating like any light aircraft. The Rotax engine also transitions from driving the rear wheels to a rear-mounted pusher propeller.

After a 1,700-foot takeoff run, the car becomes airborne.

Once in the air, the driver will notice a sharp decrease in fuel economy. The Transition drops from a reasonable 35 mpg on the road to an incredibly thirsty five gallons per hour in flight, at a cruise speed of 100 mph. But let’s be honest. Nobody buys a flying car for its fuel economy. It’s all about the “awesome” factor. And, given its total fuel capacity of 23 gallons, the Transition is capable of nearly five hours of flight time. Although that “useful load” referenced above does include fuel payload allowance, so,if there were two passengers, one would fly on a half-empty tank, thus reducing the range significantly.

And, no speed limits in the air mean a reasonable amount of ground coverage. No car can legally drive 500 miles in five hours, except perhaps on the German Autobahn. Official figures found on the Transition’s specification page state that the Transition’s range is actually 400 miles, plus a 30-minute reserve.

The Transition parts are constructed largely of advanced composites in order to keep the weight down. SOLIDWORKS was extensively employed in the parts design, as well as for its tooling molds.All of the major assemblies and mechanisms were designed and analyzed with SOLIDWORKS to ensure the clearance of moving parts, and to guarantee that the components would fit together precisely before committing the design to manufacture. Terrafugia also made use of SOLIDWORKS PhotoView 360 to create rather nice renderings for marketing purposes.

Since the Transition has already been demonstrated in flight (as seen in this video), the concept is a technically feasible, if uneconomical, transport option. While the concept has been proven, production at scale is another story. Terrafugia has promised several times that this aircraft would be available to the public; but,so far, each deadline has been missed.

So, is there a market for a flying car that embodies all the sleekness, styling and speed of a clunky ice cream truck and has horrendous fuel consumption when it’s aloft? Is there anyone eccentric enough to pay $270,000 for a strange vehicle that can be both driven and flown, however badly? No matter! That question hasn’t stopped Terrafugia from dreaming big.

In addition to the Transition vehicle, Terrafugia’s website is touting a preliminary 3D rendering (and video animation) of its next concept development, the TF-X,which certainly looks like the idealized sci-fi concept of a flying car. However, given that the website has no specific details (especially regarding takeoff weight and wing area), how can one make an accurate assessment about whether the TF-X is feasible, or just an ambitious dream?

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TF-X concept.(Image courtesy of Terrafugia.)

Looking at the images of the TF-X and its phenomenally small wingspan, 200mph cruise speed and its ability to carry four passengers, I would hedge my bets about the TF-X being simply a flight of fancy (pun intended).

So, despite all the promises, it looks like flying cars, the so-called transportation of tomorrow, may have to wait a little longer to truly be in use.

Oh, well. Until then, there’s always the jetpack.


About the Author

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Phillip Keane is currently studying his PhD at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His background is in aerospace engineering, and his current studies are focused on the use of 3D-printed components in spaceflight. He previously worked at Rolls-Royce and Airbus Military and served as an intern for Made In Space and the European Southern Observatory.

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