What Can We Do to Get Flying Cars?
Tom Spendlove posted on July 06, 2017 |

Anna Mracek Dietrich starts her TED Talk A plane you can drive with a simple question – What is it about flying cars, and if we're all so fascinated by the idea why aren't we flying in our own cars yet? She presents all of the modern twenty first century advances that should help us to build flying cars – modern composite materials, fuel efficient engines, avionic control systems and the best power-to-rate ratios in history should all be on our side. But, she says, we’ve made incremental improvements over the last one hundred years without addressing the actual problem. We don’t need a car that can be flown, we need a plane that can be driven.

Dietrich outlines her experiences with the Terrafugia Transition, and classifying the aircraft with the FAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I was surprised to learn that regulations for the car part of the flying car were more difficult to navigate than the plane side. The FAA agreed to classify the Transition as a light sport aircraft, where a sport pilot can gain certification in as little as twenty hours of flight time. NHTSA eventually allowed the Transition to be classified in the same zone as SUVs and light trucks, and Anna jokes that it’s a multi-purpose passenger vehicle “designed for occasional off-road use.”

When pilots want to fly, Dietrich says, four main categories of problems can keep them grounded. Weather, cost, long travel time and mobility at the destination. When the pilot can drive a plane there’s an easy solution for all four of these issues. This talk was filmed in 2011, and a few generations of startup product development cycles have passed. But the content here is fascinating, and a great example of how competing constraints (or competing regulatory agencies each with a six volume set of rules and regulations) can inform our design, testing and development processes. The central idea of taking the problem statement of “a car that flies” and modifying it to be “a plane that you can drive” can be used in any introductory engineering class.

Terrafugia continues to plug away slowly and publishing a new master plan in February of this year. The three step plan to demonstrate the life improvements possible from flying cars relies on General Aviation (GA) crafts, VTOL vehicles for urban short-range travel, and a third product that will satisfy our science fiction flying car itch. The company continues to keep its focus on step one, getting the Terrafugia Transition to market.


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