I am frequently asked about the need for our vehicles to drive on the road — especially in the context of TF-X — a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that can bring users much closer to their final destination by air. Engineers are quick to identify that the added weight of a robust ground-drive system could translate to extra payload, extra range, or additional performance if we did not require the vehicle to drive. Why then would we choose to incorporate a system that allows highway driving when the other capabilities of TF-X would seem to render driving obsolete?
The answer can be summed up in one word: flexibility.
As amazing as modern technology is, we are still a long way away from controlling the weather. So, we need to plan accordingly.
Our long term goal is to bring a new dimension of personal freedom to the world. In order to accomplish that goal, we need to develop a vehicle that is at least as reliable as your car — even in bad weather. Small aircraft are inherently more sensitive to bad weather than cars. Even if autopilot systems could be built that would technically allow vehicles to travel safely in storms, the turbulent ride in stormy conditions can easily cause occupants to become ill. Therefore, people will continue to choose to drive if weather conditions appear to be marginal. If people continue to choose to drive a normal car, there will be less market share available for a flying car — unless that flying car can drive in bad weather.
Some argue that this problem suggests shared use vehicles — Zipcar for when you need a car, and zip-plane for when the weather is good and you want an aircraft. The problem with this argument is that you need twice as many vehicles (and almost twice as much parking inside city limits) to support a given number of people and realize the benefits of personal air travel for all of society.
A solution like TF-X is needed to give everyone this capability without significantly increasing the parking/infrastructure needed to support more personal vehicles. The TF-X approach also works on many different scales because it fits in more seamlessly with existing infrastructure: i.e. it does not require a significant capital investment by a city or town to create new parking for aircraft. It can be adapted to either the traditional personal ownership model, or the shared use business model. The flexibility provides tremendous value both to the customer and to our business.
Because most of the aerospace industry is focused on gov’t or airline customers which prize performance over all other metrics, the industry at large is not in tune with individual consumer preferences. It has always been about “higher, faster, farther — and more efficient” for the aerospace industry. Other businesses have demonstrated that for consumer products, once a certain level of performance is achieved, convenience and flexibility matter more to consumers than added performance. Look at the personal computer. I will always be able to buy a desktop that is more computationally powerful than a laptop, and a laptop that is more powerful than my smartphone. But my smartphone allows me to do most of what I need to do wherever I am, so I spend more money and time with my smartphone than my desktop. It gives me the flexibility that I value. TF-X will be a similar sort of consumer product. The customer will buy it for reasons they may not even be able to explain — but they will be able to sum up that TF-X allows them to do more than either a higher performance car or a higher performance airplane.
The technology is finally here to provide this new dimension of freedom and flexibility in personal transportation. The Terrafugia team is excited to be on the leading edge of this revolution!