Q&A: Anna Mracek Dietrich, 'flying car' co-creator

Dietrich, who was named one of Boston's top innovators, shares her vision for Terrafugia's 'flying car' and explains how looking at past failures helped her develop the company's business model.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

Terrafugia's Transition has been called many things — flying car, street-legal airplane, roadable aircraft, drivable plane. Despite the abundance of descriptors (Terrafugia sticks with "roadable aircraft"), the concept is straightforward: Drive your two-seater car to a public airport, deploy its wings and fly somewhere within 400 miles, then drive home or wherever else you're headed.

In a few weeks, the Transition will make its auto show debut in the 2012 New York Auto Show. Terrafugia has been accepting reservations with a $10,000 refundable deposit since 2009, and about 100 people are currently awaiting their first flying cars. (The anticipated base price for a Transition is $279,000.) The company hopes to deliver its first batch of street-legal planes by the end of this year.

The design and business came from three MIT graduates: Terrafugia's Chief Operating Officer Anna Mracek Dietrich, her husband CEO/CTO Carl Dietrich and co-founder Samuel Schweighart. "We were all pilots but we hadn't really been able to fly," Dietrich says. "It turns out that it's a lot more inconvenient and a lot more expensive and a lot harder to actually go somewhere in a small plane than you think it's going to be. We realized we had the chance to do something entrepreneurial in general aviation that would also make flying more fun."

The granddaughter of a Boeing engineer, Dietrich remembers growing up "in love with the idea of things that flew." Her childhood basement housed discarded Mars lander models, and she even built her own spaceship—part red wagon, part refrigerator box—from which she stargazed on top of a nearby hill. Dietrich, who was named one of Boston's top innovators, spoke with us about her vision for Terrafugia's drivable plane and how looking at past failures helped her develop the company's business model.

At what point did you start thinking, 'Hey, maybe this is actually a feasible idea'?

I was getting my master's degree at MIT and Sam and Carl were in the PhD program. It was 2004 and the [Federal Aviation Administration] published the sport pilot light-sport aircraft rule. It created a new class of aircraft with a streamlined certification process. That was the regulatory window that opened the door for doing something innovative in aviation. In 2005 we really started getting some traction with the idea and then we incorporated in 2006.

Who do you envision buying and using the Transition?

One of the really fun things about giving folks a new capability is figuring out and watching what they're going to do with it. We have reservation holders who are planning on using it to visit clients over several states. We have people who are planning on using it just for fun to visit their grandkids or go on weekend trips. And some folks just want to have one because it's just really cool. We have a really broad spectrum of anticipated usage for the transition and I expect that as they get out there over the next couple years, we'll see uses for them that we aren't even anticipating now. It's going to be fun to see what people do with them.

The Transition is priced at $279,000. How close are we to something like this being available at a more widely accessible price point?

It's not something I can promise at this point, but I certainly know better than to ever say never. Our intent is to make it more accessible if possible, but we have to maintain the safety and work within the regulations as our top priority.

So the goal isn't to see one of these parked in every driveway.

This is an airplane that provides additional freedom and flexibility and safety as an airplane. While it can certainly expand the aviation industry, I don't think it's something that would replace your family car.

Looking through history, did you come across any past successes with cars that could fly?

We definitely found a lot of past failures. I think it's pretty clear that there hasn't been a success in the past, but we were very diligent about understanding the history of these vehicles and how we could avoid hitting our shins on those same obstacles. That's a large part of what drove us to build a plane that you can drive as opposed to a car that you can fly.

Why did that seem more doable?

It was a much more realistic place to start. The technology to make a plane that drives is already in existence and proven. The technology to make a car that flies is out there, but kind of on the fringes of state of the art as opposed to proven technology.

There are already drivable planes out there?

The first published concept for dual-use vehicle was back in 1918, I believe. Since then, there have been a handful of vehicles that have had technical success. I think Molt Taylor's Aerocar is probably the most well-known of all of those. There's one model that's still out there flying and driving occasionally, but there were some fundamental problems with both his business plan and the design that kept it from being a commercial success.

What did he do wrong business-wise?

He set out to have an Aerocar in everyone's garage and ended up getting over 250 orders for aircraft. That's quite respectable in the aviation industry, but he was trying to be in the automotive industry. Those kind of numbers are not a good place to start in the automotive world. I think he missed an opportunity to start within aviation and then grow from there.

It sounds like you're specifically trying to correct Taylor's mistakes.

You can now get a sport pilot certificate in as little as 20 hours of flight time, but you do need to be a pilot to operate the Transition. That's led us to focus initially on markets where people are already pilots. We've built the business and capitalized the business plan such that if we stay as an aviation product we will be a successful company. The numbers will work out quite well.

Where we have the big unknown and the real potential upside is with broader appeal and bringing people into aviation. We've already created some pilots with this product. We're starting to see just how far that's going to be able to go. That's part of why we wanted to go to the auto show next month: We wanted to expose the Transition to car enthusiasts and say, 'Okay, you do have to be a pilot if you're going to use this, but are you interested in doing that?'

On the road, the Transition gets about 35 miles per gallon. That's better than a lot of cars out there.

We have the lightest-weight safety cage that meets the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for multipurpose passenger vehicles of any car on the road. Our vehicle weighs less than some motorcycles. Just having that lightweight vehicle helps your fuel economy. We're using a fairly fuel-efficient, 100-horsepower engine, so that also helps. And it was designed to be aerodynamic in flight, so even with the wings folded up, it's still a fairly low-drag vehicle.

Who do you see as your competitors — or as your peers?

There are a couple ideas out there combining flying and driving. There's a flying dune buggy, which was intended for the bush market. Then there's a concept out for a flying motorcycle. There are probably a hundred published concepts in various stages of reality at this point. I don't think we have a lot of direct competition at the moment, but I imagine if we're successful enough we will.

The commercial airlines have been hurting for a few years now. Should the Transition be making them even more nervous?

I think it fills a niche that isn't currently addressed by either automotive transportation or commercial airlines. For trips between 100 and 400 miles, that's a little farther than you want to drive, and economically, it doesn't make sense to fly commercially. I don't think this is significant competition for the airlines in any way.

All images courtesy of Terrafugia.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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