Flying cars. Seriously.
Funded on Apr 18 2014
What we do: Terrafugia intends to build flying cars. Their TF-X program is aimed at producing a commercial personal aircraft and bring personal aviation into the mainstream.
Why it's a big deal: While our ability to communicate and access information is increasing dramatically, personal transportation has not improved significantly in the past 50 years. If anything, travel today is more of a hassle. While the airlines have an impressive safety record, commercial air travel is far from convenient. Cars let you set your own schedule, but they’re slow and dangerous: the average commuter spends nearly five hours a week stuck in traffic, and globally, more than one million people die in car crashes each year. We need the safety of commercial aviation, the convenience and flexibility of a car, and the freedom of the open sky. We need a new industry that makes personal aviation safer, as simple as driving your car, and convenient for everyone. We need a practical flying car. Terrafugia intends to lead the creation of a new flying car industry that will help humanity achieve this new dimension of personal freedom.
The company said the flying car, or roadable aircraft, stopped from a speed of 60 mph in 110 feet on dry pavement. That puts it in the running with top sports cars like the Porsche Carerra and Cayman.
The path to a flying car is one step closer to becoming reality. That may sound like a stretch, since the flying car has been “just around the corner” for decades. But Terrafugia just completed its first phase of flight testing for its production-conforming prototype Transition “roadable aircraft” and is firmly on the path to completing the development and delivering to customers.
Like other modern street-legal vehicles, the Terrafugia Transition includes such safety equipment as air bags for the driver and passenger, energy-absorbing crumple zone construction, a collapsible steering column, auto-tensioning seatbelts with force limiters, and a back-up camera.
Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia Inc. said Monday that its prototype flying car has completed its first flight, bringing the company closer to its goal of selling the flying car within the next year. The vehicle – dubbed the Transition – has two seats, four wheels and wings that fold up so it can be driven like a car. Last month, it flew at 1,400 feet for eight minutes. Commercial jets fly at 35,000 feet.
The vehicle he’s talking about is a production prototype for one of the first “roadable aircraft” approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority: a flying car that’s capable of being driven legally to the local airport, unfolding its wings, and then taking off and cruising at 100 mph before landing on a runway and driving you to your final destination. That’s all while delivering 35 mpg on the highway and 20 mpg in the air.
The exemptions clear the way for shipping to begin from Terrafugia's Massachusetts plant following testing. The flying car is slated to enter production this year, with shipping in 2012.
For almost 60 historic seconds in March, the Transition -- half car, half airplane -- soared over New York's Plattsburgh International Airport. The airborne minute was the first successful test flight for the two-seat, road-ready aircraft.
We were promised flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters. Why are we not working on more big problems? The last generation went to the moon. Their parents started Hoover Dam before they knew it was even possible to finish it. Why don't we do anything hard these days?
Do we still have the "right stuff"?
If building a flying car is a good indicator, Terrafugia has "it" in spades. After a century of failure, it takes some brass balls to tell people - with a straight face - that you intend to build an automobile that flies. But, after six years and $10 million dollars (about 1/4 of the amount invested in Color), Terrafugia is on the brink of delivering their first product.
The first version - the Transition - is more "roadable airplane" than "flying car", but it's a start. Two prototypes have been built. Over 100 people have advance-ordered them, and it's expected to ship in 2015, FAA willing.
But the Transition is just the start. Terrafugia is determined to bring us the Jetson-car that we've been promised for over a half-century. Vertical takeoff, 200 miles per hour, complete end-to-end auto-pilot... that's Terrafugia's goal over the next decade. Sure, it's a very risky investment... but it's hard to bet against these guys.
Carl Dietrich grew up in the 1980s fascinated by the Space Shuttle and stories of Apollo. He expected to dedicate his life to NASA working on ambitious aerospace projects, but he was destined to be disappointed.
During his first summer as an undergrad at MIT, Carl got an internship at NASA Ames Research Center. He was thrilled to be working at NASA, but became disillusioned when the project he was assigned to was cancelled-- and its manager told him that the team that would continue working on it anyway because it was in the budget. "This is stupid," Carl remembers thinking, "This isn't going anywhere." He came to the conclusion that shifting priorities at NASA due to political whims made it no longer capable of accomplishing big things.
In 1998, Carl founded the MIT Rocket Team, a student club that soon attracted Andrew Heafitz (Terrafugia VP of Engineering) and Sam Schweighart (Co-Founder and Technical Fellow) as early members. In 2003, Anna Mracek (now Anna Mracek Dietrich, Co-Founder and COO) joined the Rocket Team and started asking questions about the group's schedule and budget. No one had done this before, so she was promptly voted president.
With the FAA's introduction of the Light-Sport Aircraft category in 2004, Carl, Anna, and Sam began thinking that building a flying car might be possible in the new regulatory environment. While studying the feasibility, Carl completed his PhD in Aeronautical Engineering at MIT in 2006 and won that year's Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Only one of those is awarded per year. It's a pretty big deal.
Carl's prize money enabled him to pursue Terrafugia while Anna went to work at GE Aviation and Sam went to Draper Labs. Carl initially tried to find support for a flying car from an aerospace company, but found them unwilling to tackle such an ambitious project. He realized that if it was going to happen, he needed to do it himself. He tried to raise investment from VC firms, but they wanted returns within 5 years-- a time scale far too short. Instead, he pieced together several rounds of angel funding along with a DARPA research contract to take the company to where it is today.
In late 2006, Carl secured the first external investment that enabled him to bring the band back together. Sam, and Andrew joined Terrafugia full-time in 2007, Anna in 2008, and they expanded their team of visionary braniacs to make the dream of the flying car real. In 2009, the first prototype car flew into the air.
Fast forward to today. Terrafugia's first product, the Transition, is a two-seater folding-wing aerocar that is designed to comply with both highway and flight safety regulations. It flies 400 miles per tank in 4 hours, fits in a single-car garage, and takes ordinary premium unleaded gasoline. And unlike with traditional small airplanes, you can learn and be licensed to fly it (in daylight and good weather) in as little as 20 hours.
The Transition is the first airplane ever that can convert between flying and driving in less than one minute and is designed to meet both FAA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards. This was not an easy problem to solve, but the combination affords unprecedented flexibility. You can park it in your garage, which means no hangar fees and no time spent changing modes; just drive it onto the airstrip and take off, then drive to your destination on the other end. Folding and unfolding the wings is like raising and lowering an automatic convertible top.
The automobile industry has been advancing safety technology for decades, with proven systems that include airbags, safety cage / crumple zone designs, pre-tensioning seatbelts, and crash testing. To make the Transition street-legal, Terrafugia brought these mature technologies to aviation for the first time. And the Transition's innovative safety cage is made from lightweight carbon fiber rather than metal, to save weight.
The Transition's 4-wheel configuration makes it more stable on takeoff and landing than a typical 3-wheel plane, and for additional safety, the plane comes equipped with a full airframe parachute. But the Transition's greatest safety feature of all may be psychological: Pilots know that they can always just drive, so they'll tend to land rather than stay aloft in bad weather.
In the air, the Transition cruises at 100mph, gets 20mpg mileage, and has a 400 mile range-- and because you travel in a straight line rather than following roads, and you encounter no traffic, its speed, economy, and range can seem even better. For typical trips between 100 and 400 miles, whether covering territory for work, traveling for pleasure, or making an unexpected emergency visit, the Transition will take you farther faster.
In addition to its state-of-the-art safety features, the Transition is enabled by other new technologies: carbon fiber composites; aluminum block aircraft engines; inexpensive MEMS accelerometers and gyros; and glass cockpits with synthetic vision systems (SVS), moving map GPS, and digital weather and traffic data that make piloting easier and smarter.
The Transition's Rotax 912 iS engine has the highest power density and lowest specific fuel consumption of any proven, certified, four-stroke aircraft engine, thanks to its combination of a lightweight aluminum block with tight tolerances and Nikasil cylinder liners. This engine runs on premium auto gas, has a 2000-hour Time Between Overhaul (TBO), and a built-in gearbox that lets the pistons and crankshaft run faster, for greater power density.
Located behind the cabin, the engine drives a 3' carbon fiber driveshaft that runs back to a gearbox in front of the plane's rear-mounted propeller. In flying mode, the gearbox engages the prop, and in drive mode it meshes with a right-angle shaft that runs a continuously-variable transmission, like a snowmobile or ATV transmission. This in turn connects via belt drive to the differential that drives the Transition's rear wheels.
On the highway, the Transition gets 35mpg, and its 23 gallon tank gives it a range of 800 miles. Terrafugians like to note that in regulatory terms, the Transition is classified as a “multipurpose passenger vehicle” -- which means that it's "designed for occasional off-road use."
The Transition is Terrafugia's first product and the company's primary, obsessive focus today. But Carl has started to design the TF-X, a program that will literally transform personal transportation. The Transition requires an airstrip for takeoff and landing, but the TF-X will be able to take off and land vertically from almost anywhere that's flat and open. It is designed to carry a family of four at over 200 mph at a level of safety that exceeds modern automobiles. And yes, it will drive down the road and fit in your garage.
In the U.S., car commuters today spend an average of 52 minutes per day driving at just 17 mph-- and these numbers are getting worse. By saving this lost time, a TF-X-like flying car would effectively inject $800 billion per year back into the economy. In the TF-X world, flying cars will provide the same door-to-door convenience that automobiles do today, except that the roads will be in the air and not on the ground. A pilot could walk out of his front door at 8am on Monday morning in Boston, and open the door to a board meeting in Manhattan just 1 hour later
The TF-X will be a computer controlled “fly-by-wire” vehicle, enabling safe operation with much less training than is required for today’s private planes. Terrafugia plans to create an “AutoFly™” system that will be initially rolled out on Transition and then incorporated into TF-X. Driverless cars have already navigated real city traffic in tests, and autonomous flying drones have gone from million dollar DARPA research to weekend R/C hobbyist projects, thanks to things like quadcopters, Ardupilot, and cheap ranging sensors and GPS modules.
The FAA is developing a NextGen Air Traffic Control system that will let every aircraft in the sky know where every other aircraft is-- effectively giving each cockpit the breadth and depth of information that's now only aggregated at the control tower. So it's not much of a leap to assume that this technology may enable the TF-X, and other aircraft, to pilot themselves from takeoff to touchdown-- map and follow their routes while keeping out of anyone else's airspace. TF-X is designed to deliver on the promise of the 21st century flying car.
Do you want to be a part of bringing the world's first commercially viable flying car to market? You should know what you are getting into.
Trying to build a practical flying car is usually a mark of insanity. No one has ever succeeded... and building it is only half of the battle. There's a risk that FAA regulations will delay the launch of the Transition until the company is bled dry of capital. There's also no guarantee the Transition will be sold at enough volume for the company to be successful.
But it's indisputable that a flying car should exist, and, given enough resources, the Terrafugia team has the MIT pedigree and aeronautical experience to make it happen. If you are comfortable with a long-term and very risky investment, then this is a chance to be apart of something that may inspire the growth of an entire new industry.
Terrafugia has raised ~$10 million from sophisticated accredited investors. The majority of that capital has been spent on the development of the Transition. The rest is still being deployed today to get the Transition through the rest of the testing program.
The funds raised on Wefunder will go directly towards getting the Transition to market. We expect this infusion will enable Terrafugia to complete the design of our third prototype.
We expect to need another $15 million to get Terrafugia to profitability from Transition sales. We anticipate raising another $30 million to ensure adequate working capital in case there are delays with Transition (as are common in aviation), and to prove the TF-X concept design with a flying experimental aircraft.
We want investors who believe in the long term vision and will be comfortable tying up this investment for 5-10 years.
It depends on our fixed operating costs which depend on the particular production facility among other things, but we plan to start in our current 19,000 sq. ft. facility where we need to sell 40 Transition’s per year in order to break even.
Terrafugia has maintained alternative revenue through engineering and production contracts during the development of the Transition. In particular, we have been heavily involved with the DARPA TX program which has helped inspire the TF-X program. In addition, we are preparing our manufacturing team for a rigorous production environment by supplying composite boat parts for Stillwater Design.
We will not be profitable in the first year of production, but once we have delivered ~50 Transitions, we expect to have a gross margin of 40-45%. In the long run, if the price were held constant we might achieve 60% gross margin, but we expect to reduce the price to grow the market.
In 2013 dollars, the unit price may come down to between $150K and $200K. The hardware will still be expensive compared to a car, but there will be other business models like air-taxi services or “Zip-planes” which will allow more of the population to use flying cars even if they cannot afford to purchase one outright.
According to third party market research, the market for the Transition in the United States alone will be 200-400 units per year by production year four. This estimate is based exclusively on the general aviation market and does not account for growth of that market among non-pilots which may be inspired by the Transition. Non-current-pilots currently represent half of our production backlog, so those numbers could double. We do not have estimates we trust for international markets, but since the US represents approximately 50% of the global GA market, we believe that these numbers could reasonably be doubled again if all international regulations were to allow the operation of Transitions (which they do not today).
Our target customer is evolving as the company matures. Initially, we are targeting personal aircraft owners. These people already value their personal freedom, and the Transition gives them a new level of convenience and flexibility. They typically enjoy flying personal aircraft, and they already know how. This segment of the market has the lowest barriers to entry, but it is small (~150,000 personal aircraft owners in the US). We are starting to reach beyond this community to those non-pilots who have the means and may be inspired to enjoy the freedom, flexibility, and fun of the first practical flying car. Eventually, we will want everyone who doesn’t want to deal with the hassles of rush hour traffic or the TSA. We will start with that market once we have made more progress on the TF-X program.
Terrafugia reaches customers today through a combination of our website which is the top ranked site when searching for “flying cars” and also by going to key trade shows in the high end vehicle industries (aviation, automotive, and boating/sailing). We will begin to advertise in select publications once we are ready to deliver, and we may engage with regional distributors at that time.
The Transition gives our customers more FREEDOM, FLEXIBILITY, and FUN than any other aircraft on the market today. We are also setting the highest bar in the industry for SAFETY and SIMPLICITY which are the keys to expanding the personal aircraft market beyond general aviation today.
As airplanes go, this one is very simple: Most non-pilots will be able to learn how to safely operate the Transition in less than 20 hours. Current pilots need less than 5 hours to get the hang of it.
Safety is the top priority at Terrafugia. The Transition was designed from the ground up to meet more safety standards than any other general aviation aircraft. In addition to the rigorous Federal Aviation Regulations imposed by the FAA, the Transition must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). We even incorporate safety advancements that are not required -- like a full airframe parachute system -- because we believe it is just the right thing to do and it will save lives. We are proud to build not only the most technically advanced flying car ever, but also the safest personal aircraft in the world.
There is little that makes us similar to previous attempts, except the fact that we are also developing a vehicle that flies and drives and that we intend to inspire a significant change in personal transportation. Unlike previous attempts:
The FAA is currently investing $63 billion in the NextGen Air Traffic Control system that includes key provisions that will benefit personal aviation. The key technology components all exist today. In the United States alone, the average commuter spends 52 minutes per day driving at an average speed of 17 mph -- and it is getting worse. The successful deployment of a TF-X like flying car would effectively inject $800 billion per year of lost time value back into the economy. It is wasteful of society to delay implementation of a practical flying car. The benefits to global GDP far outweigh the capital requirements even if conservative discounted cash flow models are used. Beyond the financial needs, the aspirational benefit to humanity that comes from the enhanced level of personal freedom and the satisfaction of finally accomplishing this vision is priceless.
The international ASTM standards that have been adopted by the FAA through the FARs for light aircraft certification were integral to the development of the design requirements for the Transition. The FAA has also given Terrafugia a special exemption to allow the Transition to carry more weight (allowing our extra safety features).
Terrafugia management is actively involved in the creation and maintenance of the ASTM standards that are used by the FAA for the regulation of light aircraft. In addition, Terrafugia COO Anna Mracek Dietrich participated in the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) which is advising the FAA on the latest revision of the Federal Aviation Regulations that pertain to aircraft less than 19,000 lbs. Our exposure to the FMVSS has been quite useful to these bodies.
If the FAA adopts the key changes that have been recommended by the Part 23 ARC, much of the remaining certification guidelines/process work can be accomplished in ASTM committee F44 (of which we are a founding member). In addition, in order to allow operators to utilize a TF-X vehicle with less training than a typical private pilot today, Terrafugia will need to show the FAA that the level of safety of a TF-X vehicle with an inexperienced operator exceeds that of an experienced pilot flying a general aviation aircraft today. We believe it is doable. The FAA would then need to create a new type of "operator’s license" for a flying car.
Perhaps the most important pieces are great relationships with fantastic suppliers and a superb production team with a good training program -- we’ve made great progress on these fronts. An outstanding ERP system that is tightly integrated to the shop floor, suppliers, and sales is another key piece -- we do not have this yet.
The production line will fall under the purview of our Quality Assurance program. We are currently at the early stages of setting up our QA program and systems, based in large part on the industry best practices currently being captured by ASTM F44 Committee for General Aviation Aircraft, and standards like AS9100 and ASTM F2930, which we helped author. One part of our QA system which is already up and running to support our testing program is a Material Review Board (MRB) which convenes a cross-disciplinary team to evaluate any anomalies or damage and decide what corrective actions are necessary.
Finally, there is the tooling and assembly jigs (and the associated documentation/procedures). We have some tooling and some documentation and procedures, but we do not have everything we need for efficient production yet -- some of what was built for the current prototype must be revised based on lessons learned in the field. This capital raise will go substantially toward building out the remaining jigs, tools and procedures needed for early production.
Delivery of the first Transition is expected in 2015. Our second prototype Transition is currently undergoing durability testing. During this process we are monitoring every part and joint in the vehicle for signs of wear and fatigue. Once this process is complete we will have a list of desirable modifications to the design. A third prototype will incorporate those design changes and be used for final compliance testing for certification. This process is currently expected to take approximately 18 months, but the actual duration will depend on the final number of changes desired prior to production.
There are many component technologies that did not exist outside the laboratory 30 years ago: proven carbon fiber composites, proven high power density aluminum block 4-stroke aircraft engines with Nikasil cylinders that are FAA certified to run on auto gas, inexpensive MEMS accelerometers and gyros, glass cockpit displays with synthetic vision, GPS moving maps, digital weather and traffic data, safety cage/crumple zone design, simulated crash testing, airbags, pre-tensioning seatbelts, off-the shelf full airframe parachute systems, and finally, configurations that allow a vehicle to fit inside a single car garage and rapidly convert between flying and driving modes.
The Transition is the first step of the TF-X program. Initially, almost all resources will be dedicated to the Transition. Over time, more and more of the development budget will shift to future products. Five years from now, very few resources will be dedicated to Transition compared to TF-X. All of the technology, field experience, and production capability developed for Transition will inform the TF-X program.
Making the TF-X work and achieve the level of safety and freedom we believe it can is a huge engineering system integration challenge, but it does not require any fundamentally new technology -- that is what makes it so exciting to us -- we can make it work now!
That said, there are some technologies that are around the corner that will make a TF-X vehicle even more amazing:
We have a lot of engineers at Terrafugia (including in our management) -- that is both a strength and a weakness. We tend not to pursue as many business development opportunities as we might if we were more MBA-centric. We have not raised as much capital or grown as fast as we perhaps could have if we had been more aggressive in pursuing those other opportunities. Instead, we have an unrelenting focus and passion for making the flying car real. We don’t want to be just another aerospace company that gets most of it’s revenue from government contracts. We want to be a true consumer product aerospace company that inspires the creation of an entirely new flying car industry.
We intend to hire a VP of Manufacturing, a Supply Chain Manager, and at least one Buyer in addition to multiple Vehicle Assembly Technicians. We will also hire a Director of Sales and Training. On the engineering side, we will continue to hire top talent to assist with Transition product improvements and the TF-X program.
We have already inspired quite a bit of competition, some of which is public, and some of which is not. This is fantastic. We need more. The more competition we inspire, the more useful work and idea flow will go towards this fledgeling industry, and the more regulations will change to allow the more widespread use of this type of vehicle. The biggest risk we have is that we DON’T inspire enough serious competition. If that happens, the industry could stay small for a longer time which would mean less growth and higher risk for Terrafugia.
In ten years, Terrafugia should have at least two product lines -- an evolved Transition that is even easier to operate, and at least one product that has evolved out of the TF-X program which will allow a much larger segment of the population to experience the freedom of a practical flying car. I expect we will be a publicly traded company selling thousands of vehicles per year. The open development environment of TF-X will have maintained the public’s trust and Terrafugia’s leadership position in a rapidly maturing flying car industry even with the entry of new much larger companies. We will be inspiring millions of people around the world to embrace a new dimension of personal freedom. Flash forward another 10 years and the industry Terrafugia inspired will have a measurable effect on the global GDP.