Terrafugia TF-X

Self-flying cars are easier to do than self-driving cars, Terrafugia co-founder and CEO Carl Dietrich said at a conference at MIT over the weekend. And, all going perfectly to plan, we can expect to be able to buy our very own self-flying vehicle with vertical take-off and landing capabilities within a decade, he said.

Speaking at the MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum on Saturday, Dietrich said self-flying cars, such as Terrafugia’s in-development TF-X, represent a less complicated technology challenge than that faced by self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars have to worry about things like how to respond to road signs held by workers who are signalling the opposite. They also have to be able to adapt to changing road conditions and visibility. But self-flying cars need only to worry about the vast 3D road in the sky, and take-off and landing. Those challenges are relatively straightforward, Dietrich said. Autopilot technology has been around since the 1980s, and automatic landing systems have been in operation since 1979.

“The technology challenge for self-flying cars is easer than for self-driving cars,” he said.

The difficult that the TF-X faces, however, is one of regulation. Regulators need to create international standards so that people without traditional piloting skills can be certified to operate flying vehicles. Regulatory bodies so far don’t know how to regulate flying cars, but the advent of drones might help the process.

If all regulation breaks in flying cars’ favor, the TF-X, a hybrid vehicle which could carry four people and fly non-stop for 500 miles after taking off vertically, could be on the road and in the skies within eight to 12 years, Dietrich said in an interview after his talk.

If you’ve got some spare cash and can’t wait that long, then you might consider Terrafugia’s first-generation flying car, the Transition, which will be on the market in two to three years. The company has already sold more than 100 of the vehicles, which retail for $279,000 each, an order backlog of some $30 million. The vehicles run on gas and get about 30 miles per gallon, which is comparable to modern cars. They have a cruise speed of about 100mph and a range of 400 miles.

To get the Transition off the ground, however, drivers will need to drive them to the nearest airport in order to use the landing strip. Dietrich says most people in the US live within half an hour’s drive of a public airport, so it will still be faster to fly your car than drive it for those middle distances.

It’s also a pretty effective, although expensive, way of alleviating road rage.

[Image via Terrafugia]