Terrafugia unveils next-generation flying car

It’s a flying car!

At least more than the last one was.

Terrafugia, creators of the Transition street-legal airplane, have unveiled their vision for the next generation of personal aircraft, the TF-X.

The TF-X is closer to being a direct replacement for the automobile than the Transition, which features retractable wings that allow it to be driven on public roads and is primarily intended for use as a conventional aircraft that takes off and lands from an airport runway.

It’s also a hybrid, in more ways than one.

Although it flies like a fixed-wing aircraft, the four-seat TF-X was designed to take off and land vertically with the help of collapsible, electrically-powered rotors mounted on the ends of its fold-up wings. They draw their energy from a battery pack of yet-to-be-determined size and chemistry that can either be charged via an electrical outlet, or by the gas turbine engine that powers a rear-mounted propeller when the TF-X is in flight.

On the ground, the TF-X is propelled by electric motors in the wheels that are also run off of the battery pack, or in series hybrid mode where the turbine generates electricity after the battery charge is depleted.

A pilot’s license will still be required to fly the TF-X, but Terrafugia says a five-hour training session is all it will take to learn how to operate the vehicle. However, the idea is that you won’t have to do much of the flying at all.

Thanks to the FAA’s NextGen program, which will require all aircraft to be equipped with satellite transponders sending their exact location to a centralized air traffic management system starting in 2020, the TF-X could be able to fly entirely by itself from takeoff to landing. The pilot will still be ultimately responsible for the operation of the vehicle, and can fly it manually, but shouldn’t need to do more than enter a destination into a navigation system, sit back and enjoy the ride.

A 500-mile range is planned along with a top speed of 200 mph, and a built-in parachute will bring it safely to the ground in the event of any major mechanical failures along the way.

But don’t plan to impress the neighbors by lifting off from your driveway just yet. Terrafugia says the powerful prop wash of the TF-X will require a clear 100-foot diameter zone for takeoffs and landings, which will likely need to be regulated like helicopter pads are today. Terrafugia envisions more of these being established by cities and towns with the advent of vehicles like the TF-X.

They’ll have plenty of time to sort it out. Terrafugia figures it’ll be 8 to 10 years before the TF-X makes it from the drawing board to the skies, and even the Transition is still a couple of years away from entering production. The company is aiming to start delivering the $279,000 vehicles in early 2015.