Design Crime: Terrafugia's Embarrassingly Dorky Flying Car

Terrafugia reveals the production design for its long-awaited air-to-highway vehicle.

Today, Terrafugia unveiled the latest iteration of its Transition vehicle—better known as the vehicle aiming to become the world's first flying car. It's certainly a great improvement over the laughably hideous prototype—but still, in car mode, the thing has to be the world's dorkiest form of land transportation. A prototype of the design is already flying, and if you're interested in one, the first shipments are going to begin in 2011.

Making fun of the Transition's looks seems like a low blow, but I'll tell you why it isn't: The vehicle is meant to herald an era when airplanes become mass-market consumer goods, just like sports cars or power boats. They have to meet a pretty high bar in their design, if they're to compete with each other. After all, for now it's almost a pure luxury good—and that means you better look damn good piloting it. Which is one reason why a competing aircraft, the Icon A5, looks stunning:

A bit of background: The Transition and the Icon A5 are some of the very first of the so-called Light Sport Aircraft—a designation created just a few years ago by the FAA. The FAA, in creating that new category, also created a new class of pilots license: The LSA license in fact requires about half as much cash and in-flight training as a regular pilot's license (about 20 hours and $2,500). (The simple reason for the easier license is that LSA's fly below most commercial air traffic and can glide to safety if their engines lose power—making them far easier to fly.)

Ever since then, numerous startups have bet that the LSA designation—and the lower barriers to flying—will lead to an exponential leap in interest from a new breed of amateur fliers.

Which brings us back to design: It's one of the surest ways to market something to a new audience.

Compare the Transition to the Icon A5. If you're trying to lure a neophyte flier to spent upwards of $150,000 on a weekend vehicle, it makes sense to have that vehicle be pretty sexy. Likewise, if you're rich enough to buy one of these things, would you rather be flying the A5, which looks like it would be a natural fit being hitched behind your new Audi R8, or the Terrafugia, which looks like you sold off your copy of Spiderman #2 to pay the down payment?

Moreover, when you actually think about it, the Terrafugia's ability to drive—and the crash testing it has undergone—isn't all that much of a benefit given the fact that the A5 can also be folded up and hitched behind a car. (Given the mass-market, it makes sense that piloting the vehicle should be more like a car than a traditional airplane—both Terrafugia and Icon have designed their cockpits with that in mind.)

This is one case where it's hard to even fault the Transition's new designer, KiBiSi—better known for designing Puma's fabulous line of bikes and AiAiAi's chic headphones. Even the A5 would look nerdy if it had to be driven with its wings folded, and they've done a good job streamlining the old design.

This is a case where just because you can doesn't mean you should—unless, of course, your satisfied with an audience limited to guys who live in their parent's basements and love HAM radio.

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  • Truck Boy

    I think the point of this article was to establish the author as having a superior design sense by critiquing an aesthetic along an invalid set of criteria. Terrafugia acknowledges Icon as a manufacturer of Light Sport Aircrafts, but that’s about where the competition ends. There is hardly any intersection between the two target market segments. Icon is for guys (as in upper-middle aged males) who wish to position themselves as having a cooler toy when playing at the lake with the other speed boats and jet skis. Conversely, Terrafugia is aimed at couples who want to get from point A to point B and visit the kids or grandkids without getting stuck in traffic near urban centers or delayed by IMC (“bad weather” for you non-pilots).
    When looking at products and devices that create an entirely new playing field, I always reference Apple’s first personal computer, hacked together with plywood and spare keyboard parts:
    Compare that to a 2010 iPad…

    “Design” (Big D) is understanding all aspects of the problem including the end user. If Cliff had read his media release he would have understood the market positioning and factors for design that drove a lot of the overall aesthetic here. Those factors did NOT include “vehicle as fashion accessory”.

  • Blain Rempel

    @Sheena Medina: agreed that a great challenge of design is the blend of utility and aesthetics, BUT this article wasn't about that, it was primarily about aesthetics ("better look damn good", "looks stunning", ""look nerdy", "be pretty sexy").

    What are the engineering considerations that might cause an aesthetic trade-off? How do you improve aesthetics without compromising utility or safety?

    Too many people talk about "design" as if it only considered aesthetics - I'll call that "small d" design; "Big D" Design is about the holistic view - utility + appearance; engineering + aesthetics.

    Again, just my two cents...

  • Sheena Medina

    Blain, you are absolutely correct. The article primarily focuses on aesthetics because in this case, the author states, "The vehicle is meant to herald an era when airplanes become mass-market consumer goods." The fact that he takes the time to point out a competing aircraft's superior exterior design, but still concedes that they both lack true appeal to a mass-market at this point, is evidence that we are talking about this product in context of revolutionizing land transportation for the masses. Key word being, masses. In which case, the designs available seemingly have much more work to do in order to appeal to a mass-market.

    However, if we are talking about engineering, safety, and Design (with a capital D), then yes, I would agree that these flying car concepts are a miraculous feat in all three categories and mark the beginning of an era that will truly transform the way we travel by land and air.

  • Blain Rempel

    With all due respect, IF someone is going to design a flying car, the most important aspects are going to be safety on the road and in the air and not mere aesthetics (engineering as it were over style).

    I'm a big proponent of "design" (style/ aesthetics / usability), but that is a component of overall Design, which includes utility and function.

    My two cents...

  • Sheena Medina

    Blain, Don't you think one of the many great challenges of design is to incorporate the highest function of utility AND aesthetics at the same time? I see this intersection as one of the core reasons we talk about design in the first place. The way form and function are integrated is what makes these conversations possible.