In the future mobility space, companies like Terrafugia are in the spotlight as the world watches their progress and waits for eVTOL technology to become mainstream.
In conversation with Auto Futures, the company’s leadership team comprising CEO, Charlie Jing; General Manager – U.S. Kevin Colburn; and Business Development Manager, Fred Bedard discuss the work that they’re doing.
“In 2002, MIT professor John Hausman completed a survey of pilots that identified the largest barriers to the more widespread use of general aviation: primarily weather sensitivity, cost of hangar storage and aviation fuel, long door-to-door travel time, and the lack of convenient and reliable ground transportation at most airports. A group of five MIT students recognised that a flying car would address all these barriers,” explains Kevin Colburn.
“The concept of the flying car has captured the imagination of inventors and entrepreneurs for ages: the first flying car patent was issued in 1918! But between regulatory hurdles, technology limits, and infrastructure limitations, successful product launches were elusive.
“Then, in 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created a new category of aircraft known as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). The LSA category made it significantly easier for manufacturers to develop and sell new types of small aircraft and for prospective pilots to get trained and licensed to fly them,” he adds.
In 2006, the students founded Terrafugia and designed a combined flying-and-driving vehicle with folding wings and four wheels. Angel investors provided the bulk of the early funding, then a few institutional investors pitched in. In late 2017, China’s Geely acquired Terrafugia as it eyed an entry into the aviation space.
Transition and TF-2 are the two products that Terrafugia has lifted the covers off, and Colburn spoke at length about their features, functionalities and the technology backing them.
Colburn says: “The Transition is a two-seat vehicle that will fit in a standard home garage, be driven to a nearby airstrip, and unfold its wings in less than 60 seconds at the touch of a button. It will take off like a typical fixed-wing airplane, fly up to 400 miles, re-fold its wings at the touch of a button, and then be driven directly to the operator’s final destination.
“It is designed to fly in and out of the 5,200 public airports throughout the United States. In addition to a driver’s license, operating it will require only a Sport Pilot’s certificate, which means that non-pilots can learn to operate the Transition in as little as 20 hours of flight training.
“The TF-2 is a family of VTOL vehicles at various stages of maturity. One variant, a passenger-carrying concept being developed in the US, is a three-part system with a ground vehicle, a pod that could hold cargo or passengers, and a flight vehicle. Another variant, which is further along, is cargo-carrying and autonomous. It is being developed by a team in Shanghai, and it could also develop into a passenger-carrying variant,” he notes.
Regulations and Innovations
According to Colburn, Geely’s backing has been instrumental in the growth of the company. He says: “It allowed us to expand our workforce by a factor of five, significantly improve our design and prototyping equipment and capabilities, expand our testing footprint, and start developing our vehicle production and customer-care capabilities.
“Being part of the Geely Technology Group, with its lean, agile, business-focused ethos, has helped us take a broader view of markets and where our offerings can fit. And the Geely Group has bold, system-level ideas about future mobility. We are excited to contribute our knowledge base in flying car development, aviation, and aviation regulation to the Geely Group’s vast expertise in cars, trucks, lightweight design, safety, supply chain innovation, and creative go-to-market strategies.”
Recently, Terrafugia played a vital role in the passing of flying car regulations by New Hampshire. Colburn explains: “Terrafugia teamed up with PAL-V and Samson Sky to jointly create a draft of a bill to make New Hampshire the first state in the country in which a customer can legally operate a roadable aircraft. The state representative who sponsored the bill worked with both automotive and aviation state agencies to craft the final language, and employees from all three companies testified at House and Senate Transportation Committee meetings along the way.
“We are excited to have a registration, inspection, and plating process in place when a customer considers buying a Transition. We have a vehicle-testing, customer delivery, training, and service facility in New Hampshire, and we were already planning on delivering our first vehicles in the state.
“New Hampshire saw the potential benefits of creating a legal framework for these vehicles, carefully considered the details, and created useful and flexible legislation. This law and the specific rules that are being created are beneficial for us and the citizens of New Hampshire to fully take advantage of the Transition’s utility. We hope that other states see the same potential and consider adopting the same or substantially similar language.”
I was curious to know how Terrafugia sees VTOLs integrating with the current transportation networks across cities.
CEO, Charlie Jing, explains: “The current VTOL solution – helicopters – provides special transportation missions across cities, with linkage of ground transportation at both ends of the journey. However, due to the noise level, wind impact, and operating cost, this solution is not widely used by a broader set of travellers. This has led to a surge of efforts to develop eVTOL with multiple rotors to come up with more environmentally friendly solutions.”
Flying cars should hit the road within the next few years.
The industry assumption about eVTOLs is that they significantly tackle congestion. But would they? And would a technology such as this be feasible for the masses?
Jing answers: “VTOLs, based on the current developmental path, may first offer fast air mobility within a regularly congested city among a set of fixed points at a price point that is acceptable for passengers with high time sensitivity, such as between downtown and an airport. To make VTOLs a feasible transportation alternative to ground vehicles for the masses, though, will require a mature, low-altitude, urban air traffic management system and a much more sophisticated network of take-off and landing ports.
“Coupled with a lower cost base for the VTOLs that satisfy environmental regulations, the technology with cohesive collaborations among all stakeholders may very well lead to the situation in which VTOLs will be a feasible alternative for mass transportation, but surely it will take time and consistent investment.
“Helicopters as a form of VTOL certainly can offer transportation across cities today. However, due to the noise level, wind impact, and operating cost, this solution is not widely used by a broader set of travellers. Therefore, the infrastructure of helipads across cities is not well-developed due to low demand. For eVTOLs, the requirement will also include charging stations and much-more-developed battery systems to allow sufficient flying range, so the current infrastructure across cities today is not well-equipped to handle its introduction, ” says Jing.
Fred Bedard adds: “At a recent VTOL conference, FAA administrator Steve Dickson focused on future aviation technologies and the need for regulators to ‘strike the right balance’ between encouraging innovation and assuring safety. “There’s so much promise from innovation and technology, but at the same time, so much potential for problems if we don’t get it just right.”
“So we have no choice — we need to get it right.” Bedard continues: “We’re using a crawl, walk, run approach as we mature the aircraft technologies and air traffic management procedures to do this. And at this point, I’ll note that we’re still in the crawling phase for both but making rapid progress.”
“Flying cars should hit the road within the next few years; Terrafugia expects to provide an update late next year,” concludes Colburn.