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Terrafugia's Flying Car Design Evolves

12:44 PM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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Terrafugia is showing off a concept of a flying car called the TF-X, which wouldn't be expected to be ready for deliveries for another decade. As seen in these artist renderings, it would take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane, but could driven on roads like a car as well. Terrafugia

(USA Today) -- Even though its first flying car is still at least two years away, a Massachusetts aerospace firm has unveiled a new design for a future product after that, one more akin to a helicopter than a plane.

Like its winged Transition flying car, its first product that is now scheduled for delivery in 2015, Terrafugia's TF-X would drive like a car on the ground, then take to the air like a plane. But instead of requiring drivers to find a runway, they could merely head to the local helipad -- or a parking lot -- and take off using tilt-rotor technology.

The car would lift off nearly vertically using propellers on its stubby wings. The props would then rotate from a vertical to a horizontal position for regular flight. It's the same kind of technology that is found in the Marines' V-22 Osprey, a transport now in common use, though it got off to rocky start with a series of accidents during development. Plans are for it to use a "plug-in hybrid electric" powerplant.

"We felt this was our time to share our vision of the future," says Richard Gersh, vice president of business development for Terrafugia, based in Woburn, Mass. Though the new flying car design isn't likely to take off for another decade, "if you don't start today, it won't happen."

Already, Terrafugia has gotten further than a raft of others either dreaming or designing a vehicle that can be both driven on streets and flown from airports. The Transition, a car with wings that fold into its sides, has gone through two design phases and is about to go through another. The current prototype now has 50 hours of flight time and "quite a bit of driving on the ground," Gersh says.

But even though the company says it has more than 100 orders and has pushed back delivery dates, he says another generation is in the works to make further improvements before any can be delivered. Complicating the process: The driveable plane has to meet the stringent safety requirements for both an aircraft and a car.

The Transition still has a price tag of $279,000.

Observers say the new craft appears to incorporate lessons from Terrafugia's participation in a Defense Department project to develop a flying Army jeep a couple of years ago. The tilt-rotor concept will be complicated because of both the added cost of creating such a craft and dealing with the takeoff noise, says John Brown, editor of the Roadable Times, which keeps tabs on the quest to build a flying car. While the idea might easily be written off as pie-in-the-sky, he says Terrafugia can't be written off.

"I would caution anyone from saying this is science fiction," Brown says. "They have a track record of doing what they say. We need to take this seriously."

Likewise, Paul Moller, whose Moller International has worked for years to bring a flying car to production, says he knows the difficulties of building the new design, but that Terrafugia is a "pretty impressive" company that might be able to pull it off.

But Gersh says breakthroughs in both materials and technology make the concept possible. Carbon-fiber for the skin is both lighter and stronger than metals. Engines are becoming more compact and powerful. The TF-X is the "next logical progression" and the company's engineers -- it has 22 employees, about half of whom are engineers -- will be able to turn to its development as they finish up work on the Transition.

"You've got to be looking forward," he says.

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