Multiple Flying Cars Could Be Available for Purchase by 2017

The wings fold up in a demonstration of the Terrafugia "Flying Car" during the first day of press previews at the New York International Automobile Show on April 4, 2012 in New York. –STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY

The Slovakian company AeroMobil made news over the weekend when it announced plans to release its first flying car to the public by 2017. AeroMobil’s CEO Juraj Vaculik took the stage at SXSW, the wide-ranging conference in Austin, Texas, to explain the futuristic vehicle.

Engadget reported that Vaculik hopes to alleviate three issues: traffic, insufficient air travel options for small trips, and lack of infrastructure at some destinations. Vaculick, according to Engadget, also said his vehicles could handle grass runways, theoretically making it possible to land and take off from the side of major roads if grass strips were installed.

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But AeroMobil is not alone in the flying car market– some MIT grads have a company of their own right here in Massachusetts, with a slightly different vision for the future of flying cars.

Five MIT aerospace engineers founded Terrafugia in Woburn in 2006, but they started developing their vehicle while still in school. Their flying vehicle is called The Transition.

Richard Gersh, vice president of business development for Terrafugia, said the goal is not to replace cars.

“Our vehicle– we refer to it as a “roadable’’ aircraft– is not meant to replace everyone’s car,’’ he told Boston.com. “It is supposed to solve issues that stem from common aviation.’’

Gersh said you could keep this vehicle in your driveway or garage like a car. Then when you wanted to go on a short trip, you could drive it to a small airport, take off, and land at another small airport.

“Most small airports typically don’t have rental cars or taxis,’’ Gersh said. Also, if bad weather hits during the flight, you can just land at a nearby small airport, put up the wings, and drive the rest of the way to your destination.

Gersh said 90 percent of the approximately 5,000 small airports in the country don’t have control towers.

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“When you are training to become a pilot, you learn procedures, and when you are a certain distance, you announce on radio frequency how far you are from the airport, and you let other pilots know,’’ Gersh said.

Then there are specific landing patterns pilots follow before they touch down.

To drive The Transition, Gersh said you will just need a regular driver’s license and some specific training Terrafugia will give you, since it will handle differently than a car.

To fly, you need a sport pilot certificate, since the craft falls under the light sport category.

Terrafugia has to obey regulations from both the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Gersh.

With regard to state agencies, Gersh said Terrafugia still needs to decide for tax, insurance, and registration purposes whether the vehicle is a car or an airplane.

Gersh said Terrafugia hopes to start production by 2017, and the first planes (on which you can currently put down a $10,000 refundable deposit) are expected to cost about $299,000.

AeroMobil’s CEO was cagier about his vehicles price, but said it would also be a “couple of hundred thousand’’ euro, according to The Verge. Vaculik said his target market is “wealthy supercar buyers,’’ given the vehicle’s high cost, but as with all technology, he expects over time the price will drop slightly.

Gersh said that Terrafugia’s target audience are existing pilots or those who have been wanting to become pilots– keeping with the theme that this is a plane that drives, not a car that flies.

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The Transition takes off like a plane and needs a runway, but Gersh said another project, still in the early conceptual stages, would take off and land vertically, like a helicopter.

The TF-X uses an electric motor to ascend or descend, and then once it’s flying it switches to an engine in the back that uses fuel.

“It’s a true hybrid,’’ Gersh said.

MIT Professor in Aeronautics R. John Hansman said vehicles like The Transition and the AeroMobil car can’t take off vertically, because they’re too heavy.

“When you try to make a flying car, you add a bunch of extra weight to the airplane, and there is a lot you have to put on the car that adds extra weight,’’ he told Boston.com. “When you add extra weight, it is very hard to do a vertical lift.’’

If the TF-X can overcome the difficulty, said Hansman, it could theoretically go a long way toward solving some land transportation issues, though other problems may arise.

“Helicopters are actually better if you were really trying to do a surface congestion problem,’’ Hansman said. “The main problem is the noise. If everyone had a helicopter in their backyard neighbors would complain.’’

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