In another huge confidence boost for the nascent “flying car” industry, Volvo’s Chinese parent company announced today that it has completed its acquisition of Terrafugia, a startup founded by MIT engineers and MBA students.
News of the purchase first leaked back in July, when the South China Morning Post reported that China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. was considering adding the 11-year-old Terrafugia to its portfolio. Neither company confirmed the acquisition until today, when they issued a joint statement announcing their intention of making flying cars “a reality.” At the time, the idea of Volvo’s parent company trying to build and sell flying cars had many people scratching their heads. And I have no doubt the number of itchy scalps will grow tenfold now that the deal is done.
That’s because flying cars, while hitting that retro-futuristic sweet spot, are widely considered to be hugely difficult, if not outright unworkable, from a mobility perspective. The idea of filling the skies above our cities with aerial taxis has many urbanists and city planners clutching their pearls in fear. And many of the companies, Terrafugia included, that are working on the technology have been known to over-promise and underperform.
However, Terrafugia is not some latecomer to the flying car business like Google’s Larry Page or Uber. The Woburn, Massachusetts-based team has been flying its prototypes since 2009. The Transition, a road-ready prop plane with retractable wings, received approval from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2012 that essentially made it street legal. And the startup even managed to sell a handful at a price of $279,000 each. To be sure, the Transition was more of a drivable plane than a flying car, but it supposedly fits into a one-car garage, so why split hairs?
Its TF-X prototype is even more ambitious. If the Transition could be considered the product of literally mashing together a car and a plane, the TF-X more closely resembles the pop culture vision of a flying car. “Think Blade Runner or Back to the Future,” Terrafugia says on its website. The retractable wings of the TF-X feature a pair of tilt rotors that would allow the aircraft to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. This type of VTOL (pronounced vee-tol) technology is seen as fundamental to the creation of an aerial taxi service, as envisioned by Uber and others. The aircraft would be electric powered, avoiding all the noise and pollution typically associated with helicopters.
“The team at Terrafugia have been at the forefront of believing in and realizing the vision for a flying car and creating the ultimate mobility solution,” Geely’s founder and chairman Li Shufu said in a statement. “This is a tremendously exciting sector and we believe that Terrafugia is ideally positioned to change mobility as we currently understand it and herald the development of a new industry in doing so.”
As part of the acquisition, Terrafugia’s founder Carl Dietrich will transition to the role of chief technology officer, allowing Geely to appoint Chris Jaran, former managing director of Bell Helicopters, as CEO. Geely’s vice president for international business Nathan Yu Ning will become chairman of Terrafugia, and three other Geely executives will join the company’s board. In the run-up to the purchase, Terrafugia tripled its number of US-based engineers, and Geely says it plans on making even more hires now that the deal is completed.
Terrafugia will also benefit from Geely’s largesse, which was able to transform Volvo from a distressed property purchased from Ford in 2010 to one of the world’s leading automakers. The Hangzhou, China-based company also owns The London Taxi Company, which operates that city’s iconic black cabs, and large chunks of Malaysia’s Proton and the UK’s Lotus.
Transforming flying cars from curiosity to something that has a meaningful impact on urban mobility will be incredibly difficult, and some experts wonder if it’s even worth the time, effort, and resources that companies like Airbus, Uber, and now Geely are committing to it. Uber says it plans to launch its flying taxi service in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Dubai as soon as 2020, but it will likely take years, if not decades, for this type of technology to achieve commercial success. Geely and Terrafugia haven’t committed to a specific date to launching its own service. So don’t expect to see Volvo-branded cars buzzing between rooftops anytime soon.