AI News, Why the Flying Car Future Needs Robots

Why the Flying Car Future Needs Robots

TheMassachusetts-based company hopes to eventually move toward a semi-autonomousflying car called theTF-X.That flying car conceptrepresents a class of “computer-controlled” vehicles featuringanautomaticflight mode,auto-landingmode and the ability to automatically navigate around flight hazards, saysCarl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia.Dietrichlaid out his company’s vision during theImagination series of talks at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Still, the flying car future as envisioned by“The Jetsons” needs more than just highly automated vehicles.Most flying car prototypes currently under development, such as Terrafugia’sTransition, resemble light aircraft that can fold up their wings and drive on roads like cars.

Instead, Terrafugia wants the more futuristic TF-X flying car to combine theadvantagesof plug-in hybrid cars and roboticself-driving carswiththe freedom of personal air travel in a way that goes beyond today’s mass airline travel.

You park it at home in your garage, charge it up like a normal hybrid vehicle today, drive it along the roads and highways just like you drive a normal car today, and take off and land vertically from small helipadsusing quiet and clean electric propulsion.

This vehicle-to-vehicle communication would allowthem to queueup for takeoffs and landings and avoidmidair collisions—the job that air traffic controllers typically perform for centralized airports.

Any airworthy car would also need to be maintained according to stringent safety standards and have the ability to handle emergency scenarios—whether on its own or with the assistance of the human pilot or operator.

More than half of those customers don’t have piloting experience, which suggests that even the more limited type of flying car represented by the Transition is drawing strong interest outside its private pilot market niche.

Terrafugia Transition: Flying car available for mass market in one year.

The company that makes the vehicle, Terrafugia—Latin for 'flee the Earth'—is a small firm based in Woburn, Mass., made up almost entirely of engineers.

Dietrich, already an indefatigable inventor, started toying with the idea of producing a flying car that enthusiasts and businesspeople could take on short trips—300 miles, say, a full day's car trip but a quick flight—and then drive and keep at home.

Terrafugia's TF-X brings flying cars closer to reality (no airport needed)

When was the last time you were stuck in traffic and wished you could press a button on the dashboard, turn your car into a helicopter and soar away from the rush-hour snarl at, say, 200 miles per hour?

With so much talk these days about the seemingly imminent arrival of fully-automated, self-driving cars in showrooms, people might not realize how close we are to parking flying cars in our driveways.

The vehicle reflects the latest developments in self-driving cars and the probable future of increasingly automated airborne personal transport, but is most likely a decade or more away, Dietrich said.

The TF-X — unveiled at AirVenture, an aviation industry gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, last week — is called the TF-X and uses battery-powered rotor blades to lift off and moves into forward flight using a gasoline-powered propeller-like fan for thrust.

For now, though, Terrafugia is betting on its slightly more conventional Transition, a flying car with folding wings and traditional manual controls that is close to gaining Federal Aviation Administration approval and could go on sale in a year or two.

Flying Car Company Terrafugia Sold to Chinese Automaker Geely

According to a source with knowledge of the deal, the transaction size is modest, but Geely plans to invest in flying-car technologies and put its automaker resources behind Terrafugia’s approach.

Terrafugia’s founding team of MIT grads originally set out to build a “roadable aircraft”—a flying vehicle for private pilots that could land on a runway, quickly fold up its wings, and drive on public roads.

More recently, the company has been working on a next-generation product called TF-X, a hybrid-electric flying car with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities—as well as autonomous flying features.

As of 2013, Woburn, MA-based Terrafugia had raised a little over $10 million in financing from angel investors and $1.25 million in U.S. defense contracts.

(Dietrich and Terrafugia participated in a Boston-area event organized by Haiyin Capital in the fall of 2015.) As a small company, Terrafugia has taken a long time to get its product to market.

Another thread here is increasing competition between Chinese and U.S. technology companies—particularly in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, and hardware—even as more U.S. firms are looking to China for investors and partners.

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