Forget Flying Cars. Meet the Drivable Plane.

Still waiting for your flying car? Here's the next best thing: the drivable plane

By David Kushner, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Carl Dietrich was born long after the Jetsons first flew from the Skypad Apartments to Spacely Sprockets, but that won't stop him from trying to turn us into a nation of Georges and Janes - albeit ones with standard two-car garages.

The 29-year-old aeronautics Ph.D. candidate at MIT is also CEO of Terrafugia (from the Latin for "escape the earth"), a Somerville, Mass., startup building the Transition, which Dietrich says is not so much a flying car as a "roadable aircraft." That is, a two-seater plane with fold-up wings that you drive home at the end of your flight.

FLYING JETSONS: When it's not airborne, the Transition jet folds up its wings to motor along the highway.

The design won Dietrich the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in February. But Terrafugia is no dorm startup: The company is in talks to raise $2 million to $3 million and has hired two McDonnell-Douglas veterans in its quest to build a drivable prototype by 2008.

Ready for take-off, but where?

They aim to get the first Transitions to market by the following year, at a retail price of $148,000. The plane is tailor-made, Dietrich says, for the neglected "short-hop market" of 100- to 500-mile jaunts - a market that's only going to grow as airlines abandon low-margin short routes.

Dietrich estimates a potential market of 178,000 customers. "The Transition has the potential to draw active and nonactive pilots," he says.

Dietrich has reason to be bullish. In 2004 the Federal Aviation Administration inaugurated a new class of plane, and accompanying licenses, for light sport aircraft like the Transition.

With licensing fees and training times both half those for regular aircraft, the FAA projects an influx of as many as 15,000 new light sport pilots by 2009.

"The market is ready for a new kind of aircraft," says Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the nonprofit Experimental Aircraft Association.

That doesn't mean there aren't red-tape obstacles: "Can you take it out off a flat stretch of road," Knapinski asks, "or do you have to take off at an airport?"

But Dietrich is undeterred. He's getting his first round of funding from angel investors who are also pilots. "They have firsthand knowledge of the obstacles that this vehicle would overcome," he says.  Top of page

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