Cars that can fly have long been part of the national imagination. Popular Mechanics magazine says that the first of many flying-car references on its pages came in 1906. Jalopnik.com found the subject covered in 28 issues of Popular Science magazine spanning several decades. Hollywood has given us its versions in forms as varied as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the spinners in Blade Runner, the cars from The Fifth Element, and the animated future portrayed in The Jetsons.
The stuff of fiction, however, is now reality (and, in fact, it has been for some time -- but more on that in a bit). Last week at the 2012 New York International Auto Show (which runs through April 15), we spoke to Anna Mracek Dietrich, the COO of Terrafugia, which has its Transition street-legal aircraft on display at the exhibition. The "flying car" moniker, while fun, seems like a bit of a stretch here. In person, the Transition looks like a single-engine Cessna and one of the Harley Earl-designed GM Firebird concept cars got mashed up in a Star Trek transporter accident. Sure, it flies and it drives just as advertised, but it's also far from conventional in appearance.
As you'll see in the video of our conversation with Ms. Dietrich (posted below), the Transition (literally) spreads its wings when it's time to fly, and after landing, the pilot can tuck them back in and simply drive the vehicle home from the airport. It runs on premium unleaded gas, and gets around 35 mpg when it's being operated as a road vehicle. The Transition is a Light Sport Aircraft with less complex controls than a regular airplane. Certification to fly one takes as little as 20 hours, and Terrafugia says that it is designed to meet all FAA and NHTSA standards. The production prototype on display in New York was even wearing Massachussetts license plates. Roughly as long and as tall as a Chevrolet Suburban, and around 10 inches wider, the Transition is sized to fit in a typical home's driveway.
In addition to being able to drive the Transition home from the airport, Terrafugia says that it helps pilots beat the spectre of bad weather. If the conditions preclude flight, the pilot can simply get in the Transition and start driving to his or her destination, or to another airport where more favorable weather may allow takeoff.
As you might imagine, none of this comes cheaply: the Terrafugia Transition will start at around $279,000, and the company is taking deposits now. What you might not realize is that this formula -- the roadable aircraft -- has been tried before. The April 1946 issue of Popular Science magazine had an article on a functional Flying Automobile, that, while more complex to convert between modes, mirrors many of the features and capabilities presented with the Terrafuguia Transition. (We've posted 1946 newsreel footage of that car in action below as well.)
And as wild as it may seem, it looks as if the Transition might soon have some competition. The latest flying car to make headlines is the PAL-V One, a three-wheeled, two-passenger car that converts into a gyrocopter. As Popular Mechanics reports, it's smaller and sportier than the Transition, and it actually looks like a lot of fun to operate in either mode.
Whether either of these modern flying cars will eventually experience market success remains to be seen, but It's cool that we've actually reached this point in the conversation.