If cars had wings, they could fly — and that just might happen, beginning next year.
The company Terrafugia, based in Woburn, Mass., says it plans to deliver its car-plane, the Transition, to customers by the end of 2011. It recently cleared a major hurdle when the Federal Aviation Administration granted a special weight limit exemption to the Transition.
"It's the next 'wow' vehicle," said Terrafugia vice president Richard Gersh. "Anybody can buy a Ferrari, but as we say, Ferraris don't fly."
The Transition is a long way from cartoon dad George Jetson's flying car zooming above traffic, or even the magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
"There is no launch button on the (instrument) panel," Gersh noted.
Rather, the car-plane has wings that unfold for flying — a process the company says takes one minute — and fold back up for driving. A runway is still required to takeoff and land.
The Transition is being marketed more as a plane that drives than a car that flies, although it is both. The company has been working with FAA to meet aircraft regulations, and with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to meet vehicle safety regulations
The company is pitching the Transition to private pilots as a more convenient — and cheaper — way to fly. They say it eliminates the hassle trying to find another mode of transportation to get to and from airports: You drive the car to the airport and then you're good to go. When you land, you fold up the wings and hit the road. There are no expensive hangar fees because you don't have to store it at an airport — you park it in the garage at home.
The plane is designed to fly primarily under 10,000 feet. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 1,430 pounds, including fuel and passengers. Gas mileage on the road is about 30 mpg.
Terrafugia says the Transition reduces the potential for an accident by allowing pilots to drive under bad weather instead of flying into marginal conditions.
The Transition's price tag: $194,000. But there may be additional charges for options like a radio, transponder or GPS. Another option is a full-plane parachute.
"If you get into a very dire situation, it's the ultimate safety option," Gersh said.
So far, the company has more than 70 orders with deposits, he said.
Terrafugia is Latin for "escape from the land." The company was founded in 2006 by five Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad students who were also pilots. They received some seed money from the school.
The concept of a car-plane has been around since at least the 1950s, but it's possible that Terrafugia may become the first company to mass-produce one, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
"We're working very closely with them, but there are still some remaining steps," Brown said.