Volvo and Lotus owner Geely buys Terrafugia in a race to market flying car
Tech companies, at least ones that aren’t convinced that underground tunnels are the future, are rushing to buy flying car companies lest they get left behind when the “Uber, but with flying cars” future gets here. This month they were joined by an actual automaker as Volvo and Lotus parent company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group purchased U.S.-based flying car developer Terrafugia, which you may remember from a few years ago for the Terrafugia Transition, a type of light, propeller-driven plane that can also be driven on the road.
The impetus for Geely’s purchase of the company (aside from the whole flying car revolution that’s supposed to get here any minute) is Terrafugia’s plan to market the first flying car less than two years from now. The craft will essentially be a small plane with folding wings that can also be driven on the street — hence the need for folding wings. This model will require a regular landing strip to take off and land.
But a few years beyond that, Terrafugia hopes to market a car-shaped vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft dubbed TF-X with two tilt-rotor engines mounted on short wings that will be able to fold out from the main body. Planned to be fully electric, the TF-X will be able to take off and land vertically from virtually any solid surface. It is this VTOL car that will, in theory, compete with other small VTOL craft, some of which will essentially be scaled-up drones that can carry passengers, expected to be on the market at that point in time as various tech giants aim to be the first to bring an Uber-like experience to those too impatient to get across town by car.
“This is a tremendously exciting sector, and we believe that Terrafugia is ideally positioned to change mobility as we currently understand it and herald the development of a new industry in doing so,” said Geely founder and chairman Li Shufu. “Our investment in the company reflects our shared belief in their vision, and we are committed to extending our full support to Terrafugia, leveraging the synergies provided by our international operations and track record of innovation, to make the flying car a reality.”
Geely’s purchase of Terrafugia shrinks the number of flying-car startups that don’t belong to a larger company, but it doesn’t quite answer larger questions about market needs and public acceptance of small VTOL craft. Terrafugia is more realistic than most such startups for potential demand for their future products, pointing out that there will certainly be better-performing planes and better-performing cars out there, essentially targeting the demographic that needs the flexibility “to change plans at any point.”
“The average pilot spends 30 minutes stopped on the ground between parking his/her car at the airport and finally taking off,” Terrafugia says in its mission statement, referencing its upcoming folding-wing car-plane. “With the Transition, that stopped time is just the 40-second conversion, plus the preflight inspection. The Transition will beat high-performance GA (general aviation) aircraft on decision-to-destination metrics for average trips up to almost 200 miles because the user will spend less time stopped on the ground planning a flight, shuffling flight bags and warming up the aircraft.”
We’re hopeful that there will be a better argument and a wider demographic out there for these craft than people who are simply too busy or impatient to spend 30 minutes getting out of their car and into their Cessna. Up until now, owners of small private planes were (usually) able to afford a car or two for driving to the store and were not particularly upset that their Buick Rendezvous was not able to do both.
But at least Terrafugia is not envisioning something as potentially unreliable as a remotely piloted quad-rotor drone with passengers in it. At least not for now.
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