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.