Taking Driving To New Heights
Terrafugia Transition brings literal meaning to an old adage
By Niki Shutt
Look up in the sky! It’s a car! It’s a plane! It’s ... Dave coming home from a board meeting in Tulsa?
That’s right, Jetsons fans, there is such a thing as a flying car. Well, it’s more of a driving airplane according to the Terrafugia team. The Transition is a two-seater light aircraft you can drive home from the airport. It has a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals for driving, and it has a control stick, rudder pedals, and a throttle for flying. The wings fold up automatically in about 30 seconds going from a 27-foot wing span to just over 6-feet wide to be street legal, making it look like a grasshopper version of a Volkswagon Beetle.
You won’t be able to escape traffic by spreading your wings on the highway, but you will be able to take off from your nearest airport, fly 10,000 feet above the ground and land 400 miles away.
The 2009 Terrafugia Team including (bottom left to right) Carl Dietrich, CEO/CTO; Anna Dietrich, COO; Samuel Schweighart, VP Engineering; Col. (ret) Phil Meteer, Test Pilot. Schweighart is the son of Alan Schweighart, manager of operations and engineering at Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative
The Transition requires at least a sport pilot license to operate. A sport pilot license is easier to get because it requires only 20 hours of flying time. There will be Transition-specific courses offered as soon as it is released. Once you get to the airport you must also follow protocol by checking in with air traffic control, and you must also do a standard pre-flight check of all equipment.
So it’s a plane, right? Yes, but it’s also a car. It’s small enough to park in an average garage or parking space. You can fill up the fuel tank with premium gasoline at any gas station. If you’re flying and the weather turns bad, you can simply land and continue your journey on the road. It’s not meant to replace your car, though. The Transition is best for trips over 100 miles. It’s meant for pilots or wannabe pilots who do not want to rent hangar space or pay for taxi service to their destinations. The Transition is also quite energy efficient. On the ground it gets 30-35 mpg, and in the air it gets about 27 mpg at 115 mph.
It has many double features to follow both automobile and aviation laws. In case of an emergency in flight, there is a full vehicle parachute available. There are also standard automobile crash safety features. It has an N-number printed on the tail which is required of every aircraft. An N-number is similar to a license plate for a car. It also has the first actual airplane license plate for street use. It has an A where you would usually find the classification for any other vehicle.
It’s a very small vehicle, but don’t think it only has room for you, a friend and a briefcase. The cargo area is big enough to hold skis, golf clubs or fishing poles. Instead of fishing in the little lake in your town, you could hop over to the next state for the day where there is prime fishing.
The estimated cost of a Transition is $194,000, so it’s safe to assume that the sky won’t be crowded with Joe Schmoes who are texting and trying to eat a cheeseburger while attempting to drive with their feet. A Transition can be reserved online for a fully refundable deposit of $10,000. The first customer delivery is expected to be in 2011.
The minds behind the design are five Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates who call their company Terrafugia from the latin “to escape from land.” One of the engineers is Dr. Samuel Schweighart originally of Paxton, Ill. He also attended the University of Illinois. His father is Alan Schweighart, manager of operations and engineering at Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative.
Until they become more popular, Transitions may cause neck pain from jerking double-takes.
“He was always interested in doing things with adults more than playing with other kids,” Alan says of his son. “His grandmothers would play advanced board games and card games in which he would have to win without them going easy on him.”
When Sam told his father that he was thinking of building a flying car, his first reaction was “What are you thinking?” He knew what his son had accomplished and worried that he was leaving all of it behind.
“He had received his PhD from MIT and was working at a Engineering firm in Boston, making really good money, and I could not believe he was going to give that up. But, he was young and really wanted to make his mark in the world with something new and bold.”
The original idea for the flying car belonged to Terrafugia CEO and spokesman, Carl Deitrich. “I’ve got to give him credit,” Sam says. “He approached me about it in 2004 or 2005. Initially, I thought what anyone would have thought, that he was crazy, but after he explained the idea, and the business case, I saw he had a great idea.”
First reactions to the Transition have been varied. Terrafugia gets many e-mails from excited potential customers and even from nay-sayers who believe the Transition will not fly. The nay-sayers were proven wrong on March 5, 2009 when the Transition finally lifted its wheels from the runway into the skyway.
“It was amazing,” Sam says. “After a few years of working toward a single goal, it was so rewarding to succeed. Of course, that was only one step of many. Right now we are continuing flight testing, but at the same time, we are already making the design modifications for the next prototype. Nothing stands still here.”
They are a very busy team of 10 people working 50 or 60 hours a week according to Sam. “Being a small, focused team, we are able to accomplish some amazing things in such a short period of time.”
Terrafugia’s timeline is filled with accomplishments from the first test drive to test flight and even some of the beginning stages were exciting. “When we pulled the first piece of the fuselage out of the mold, it was the first time we were able to sit in the vehicle, and at that point I realized it was real,” Sam says.
Sam had originally wanted to be an astronaut on the first mission to Mars. He would still love the chance to go to space but wouldn’t trade his engineering job for anything else. “If you like/love to design and build things, engineering is the place; whether it is mechanical, aerospace, bio, chemical, nuclear or civil engineering,” Sam says. “I highly recommend it. If you’re interested in becoming an engineer, study up on your math and science, and get out there and start designing and building things right now.”
Dr. Samuel Schweighart may be the Co-Founder and Vice President of Engineering at Terrafugia, Inc., but he will always be a country boy from Illinois who loves to fly recreationally and hang glide.
“Hi to all my friends and family back in Paxton.”
Six months after the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) joined with Prairie Power to add a lithium-ion battery to a 2007 Toyota Prius, the results they have found so far aren’t as amazing as first thought, but it’s still a big step in the right direction. A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) has been said to get 100 mpg. This is true, but only under certain driving conditions.
“Eighty mpg is easily attainable. It’s automatic just driving around town,” John Freitag, Vice President of Operations at AIEC, says. “To get 100 mpg you really have to watch your foot on the peddle.”
The plug-in hybrid works the best at city speeds where the gas engine doesn’t need to turn on. A stock Prius turns on the engine at 33 mph, while the PHEV starts the engine at about 40 mph. The engine will also turn on to produce more horsepower when the car is quickly accelerated. To maximize the benefits of a hybrid, the driver’s driving style needs to be altered. The PHEV will give you a live update of your efficiency as you are driving on a screen. This can serve as a training tool of what to do and what not to do to achieve that 100 mpg goal. Research is being conducted on driving styles; however it is more anecdotal than scientific so far.
AIEC mainly uses the Prius to drive out of town to some of the cooperatives’ headquarters for annual meetings. On the highway the PHEV gets about 48 mpg which is about the same as a normal Prius. The PHEV is more efficient when it’s driven in the city. That is where you can really see big numbers on your console screen.
Another factor that limits the efficiency of the PHEV is the weather. In the winter or anytime the battery is too cold, the gas engine will turn on to heat up the catalytic converter in the battery regardless of the charge. Using the air conditioner or heater in excess during the hot summer or freezing winter will use up valuable battery power. The driver may feel comfortable, but he or she may not be able to go as far on battery power.
The driver must also remember to fully charge the vehicle for the best results. The PHEV plugs directly into a wall socket and can be charged overnight. Some households do not have accessible outlets such as people that live in apartments who park in a parking lot. One future plan may include a battery exchange station instead of a charging station. Drivers could exchange their drained batteries for fully-charged batteries.
If widely adopted, PHEVs can reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. An average person can reduce his or her carbon footprint by 15 percent by driving a PHEV according to the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).
The conversion to a PHEV is part of a project conducted by The Cooperative Research Network (CRN), an arm of Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory and other electric co-ops across the country joined the effort in the experiment to improve energy efficiency.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a new plug in hybrid that has a 40 mile range on electric alone. That’s right, not a drop of gas is used if it’s driven less than 40 miles a day. The average person only drives 30 miles in a day. After it runs out of electrical power, it switches to gasoline. It can run on regular gasoline or E85. It still gets 150 mpg after 60 miles according to the Web site. At 80 miles it dips to 100 mpg which is definitely better than the stock Prius.
The Volt will probably cost $40,000 with about $10,000 of that going toward the lithium-ion battery.
The Aptera is a two seater electric car that is technically a motorcycle. It only has three wheels and looks a bit like a sleeker version of the Transition. This car cannot fly, however. It looks like it could, and many people have asked Aptera Motors if it could. A couple people asked in all seriousness if it could drive underwater.
This thing may look like a futuristic egg on a tricycle with doors that swing up like a Lamborghini, but it gets 300 mpg according to its Web site. The Aptera 2e, due out later this year, is all electric while the Aptera 2h, available in 2010, is a plug in hybrid.
The 2e can be recharged with a standard 110 volt outlet in less than eight hours and will give you 100 miles per charge.
The Fisker Karma
The 2010 Karma looks like it’s going to be the first PHEV to be sold in the United States. It’s similar to the Chevy Volt although it has a 50 mile range on its lithium ion battery. The Karma is a bit different because it uses Q-Drive which Quantum Technology created exclusively for Fisker. Its small gasoline engine turns the generator. The generator is what charges the lithium ion battery pack, and the battery powers the motor. It’s definitely more of a sports car than any other hybrid. This beauty is starting at $80,000.