Terrafugia Shows Off New Design for Flying Car

A future replete with flying cars inched a bit closer today. At the AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, WI, aerospace startup Terrafugia of Woburn, MA, took the wraps off the latest prototype for its Transition “roadable aircraft,” which has folding wings that make the vehicle compact enough to drive right off the tarmac and onto the street.

The new design, a scale model of which was unveiled at AirVenture, moves Terrafugia one step closer to actually manufacturing and selling its radical street-legal airplane. The four-year-old company, which raised $2 million in Series B funding in May, had always described its first aircraft—successfully flight-tested in March 2009—as the proof-of-concept version. The version shown today is a “beta prototype” that incorporates modifications based on lessons learned during last year’s test flights.

Terrafugia's next-generation Transition aircraft in flightThe beta version looks similar to the first prototype overall, though it bears distinctive blue racing stripes along the sides and wings. (Click on the images in this story to see larger versions.) The craft has a somewhat narrower wingspan than the proof-of-concept vehicle (26.5 feet as opposed to 27.5 feet) but is slightly heavier (1430 pounds at takeoff, versus 1320 for the original version). Given the extra weight, the new craft will burn 5 gallons of fuel per hour at cruising speed, an increase from the first prototype’s 4.5 gallons per hour.

Perhaps most important, the new design features an “improved wing with an optimized airfoil,” according to the company’s announcement, as well as automotive-style crash safety features such as an impact-absorbing nose structure and a rigid safety cage. There’s a new touch-screen interface in the cockpit, and independent suspension in the wheels for smoother driving.

Transition interior -- computer graphicThere’s no word yet on how soon a flyable version of Terrafugia’s beta prototype will be finished, or when it will be tested, or how soon a third, production version of the craft might be ready. Founder and CEO Carl Dietrich said after last year’s maiden flight that the company planned to deliver its first production vehicles in 2011.

The Transition is designed to be flown by pilots with a new class of pilot’s credential known as a Sport Pilot license, obtainable after as little as 20 hours of flight time. Prospective buyers can reserve a Terrafugia vehicle for a refundable deposit of $10,000. As of the March 2009 test flight, more than 40 people had put down deposits.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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