(Bloomberg) — Talk about nosedives.
Hopes for the flying car soared in January, when one manufacturer, Woburn, Massachusetts-based Terrafugia, attained a long-awaited industry first: a Federal Aviation Authority airworthiness certificate for its Transition, a “roadable aircraft” — a winged, gas-powered, wheeled vehicle that can be both driven and flown. Suddenly the aerial sedan, first popularized in the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, needed only U.S. Department of Transportation approval before it could be let loose on America’s highways and flyways. Terrafugia hailed a “major accomplishment.” Champagne corks flew.
But in mid-February, Terrafugia quietly laid off 43 employees — almost half of its Massachusetts workforce — and began readying plans to move its headquarters to China, where its owner, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is based. The future of the company, started in 2006 by a group of MIT grads, is now unclear.
Terrafugia’s plummet to Earth should come as little surprise. The roadable aircraft has been on a wobbly trajectory since its inception in 1917, when an enterprising motorcycle builder, Glenn Curtiss, slapped some wings on what resembled a Model T and made an attempt, alas bootless, to take flight. For more than a century, the mass-produced flying car has been an American miracle earnestly promised to hit the market in months. In recent years, hundreds of well-heeled futurists have made reservations to buy a $300,000-plus flying car from Terrafugia and have inked similar orders from its two largest competitors, Samson Sky of Oregon and Pal-V of the Netherlands.
Those futurists are still waiting. At this juncture, there’s arguably just one place left where belief in the roadable aircraft is still sky-high: New Hampshire, which last year became the first U.S. state to make flying cars road-legal. Per House Bill 1182, also known as the Jetsons Bill, roadable aircraft require no inspection. So long as the machines pass muster with the Federal Aviation Administration and their owners pay a $2,000 registration fee, their pilots can drive them to an airport on public roads, then take off in them.
As an instrument of personal freedom, the Jetsons Bill is at home in New Hampshire, where license plates read “Live Free or Die.” Motorcyclists in New Hampshire can ride without helmets. Adults in cars have long been allowed to eschew seat belts. And now, New Hampshire’s spirit of liberty drives a nascent (and sputtering) flying car movement whose visionaries see wondrous things on the horizon.
Kevin Colburn, vice president and general manager of Terrafugia, says the Jetsons Bill “opens up interesting possibilities for leisure trips to islands.” He adds that the legislation could particularly aid businesses whose clients are spread far from urban centers. “The time savings in a place like New Hampshire, where the mountainous topography makes for some very indirect and lower-speed driving trips could,” he says, “be substantial.”
Laurie Garrow, an urban and regional air mobility specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says the Jetsons Bill positions New Hampshire to become an industry leader. “I can see a lot of developers going there to test roadable aircraft,” she says, in part because they could find plenty of routes with minimal traffic.
Terrafugia began conducting flight tests in New Hampshire in 2018. Meanwhile, at one of the world’s few salesrooms for roadable aircraft, customers can reserve Pal-V’s sole product, the Liberty, at the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. Built with $40 million in private investment, the machine recently cleared a major policy hurdle: On Feb. 23, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency granted it full certification. The Liberty will be legal to fly and drive once it passes a “compliance demonstration.” How long that will take is unknown.
Pal-V’s sales rep is Keith Ammon, 49, the author of the Jetsons Bill — a husky man with blue eyes and a long, squared-off, almost Biblical beard. Primarily a software developer for pharmaceutical companies, he is reserved, laconic and disinclined to make bubbly sales pitches. But when I visit, he can’t quite contain his zeal for the Liberty. “It’s a gyrocopter,” he says — as opposed to a helicopter — flying at about 100 mph with a range of 815 miles. “The power goes directly to the blades. The blades fold up, and on the road, it’s three-wheeled, meaning you can lean into the turns like a motorcyclist.”
“$390,000,” Ammon tells me. And I’m free to pay with Bitcoin.
New Hampshire is going after only one sector of the flying car market. In addition to roadable aircraft, there are also electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles (eVTOLs), which are also called “flying taxis.” They function more like helicopters and won’t ever travel on roads.
EVTOLs, which are expected to be approved by the FAA sometime this decade, will be electric-powered jitneys of the air. They’ll drop down onto urban landing pads and whisk paying customers on pricey short hops — from downtown Manhattan to the Hamptons, say. Unlike roadable aircraft, this version was conceived during this century to meet the demands of the 21st century city. They’re green, if short-hop flights for wealthy consumers can be deemed green, and they’re expected to be lucrative.
Morgan Stanley has predicted the eVTOL industry could reach $1.5 trillion by 2040. Last year, Toyota invested $394 million in eVTOL company Joby Aviation and Uber just invested $75 million in Joby, which plans to go public in a reverse merger with special purpose acquisition company Reinvent Technology Partners. German air taxi startup Volocopter in early March said it raised $242 million in additional capital.
Porsche and Boeing have teamed up to develop an eVTOL, and Geely, Terrafugia’s owner, is now focused on eVTOLs. In January, Geely signed an agreement with another Chinese holding company, Tencent, to develop smart cockpits along with self-driving cars. Meanwhile, the skies above the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K. could soon be buzzing with eVTOLs. A consortium of companies and municipalities plans to stage 100 hours of test flights over Europe by late 2022.
Compared with eVTOLs, roadable aircraft are niche products, the vintage sports cars of the skies. And if New Hampshire strikes you as an unlikely spot for their incubation, you’re a tech ignoramus. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, that geeky two-wheeled transporter, lives there and often flies his Enstrom helicopter to his office in Manchester. Soon after Kamen sold Segway to the Chinese company Ninebot in 2015, his nonprofit, the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, began pioneering the biofabrication of human organs: kidneys, livers, lungs. One New Hampshire company, Waypoint Robotics, is designing robots to aid manufacturing. Another, GSSI, has developed ground penetrating radar that measures subsurface soils, thereby facilitating navigation for autonomous vehicles. High, sometimes wonky, tech is the state’s biggest moneymaker, directly contributing $11 billion to the economy each year.
There’s a boldness to New Hampshire, a willingness to roll the dice, and I’m tuned into it because I live here in a small town, and I bump up against the spirit of innovation all the time. Once, I was in a quandary over how to get my aging Subaru past inspection, even though one taillight was dangling inside its cracked housing. The attendant at my local dump had an idea: “Just Super Glue the f— out of it, brother,” he said. I did, and it worked.
Back in 2001, a few libertarian visionaries latched onto New Hampshire’s possibilities and resolved to launch what they called the Free State Project, aiming — in the words of their guru, libertarian theorist Jason Sorens — to “establish residence in a small state and take over the state government.” While the takeover is pending, the FSP has surpassed its initial goal of luring 20,000 partisans. Among the emigres was Ammon, the Pal-V sales rep, who moved here with his wife Susan in 2009.
Ammon grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A Jehovah’s Witness, he was forbidden to engage in politics. He labored nights and weekends in his grandfather’s machine shop and devoted his imaginative energies to his granddad’s Popular Mechanics magazines, focusing on the tiny ads in the back for, say, hovercrafts that could be built with a lawnmower engine. Clandestinely, as he worked on the lathe, Ammon tuned into a raucous drive-time radio show hosted by Irv Homer, a onetime Libertarian vice presidential candidate, relishing Homer’s relentless crusade against governmental excess. “I came to realize,” Ammon says, “that every law comes with an implied ‘or else’ clause. You’re in trouble if you don’t obey. There’s a threat of force.”
Ammon never voted while living in Pennsylvania. Even into his 30s, he piously refrained. But in 2012, shortly after settling in tiny New Boston, New Hampshire, he not only cast his first ballot but joined the local school board and began looking to make budget cuts.
In 2014, running as a Republican, Ammon won a seat in New Hampshire’s statehouse and stepped up his libertarian program. In 2016, he sponsored a bill that allows all New Hampshire public libraries to run Tor, an internet browser that affords users anonymity; while this enables communication among traffickers of online drugs and sex, it also extends cover to vulnerable populations — trans teens, for example. The bill passed, and the following year Ammon sponsored a bill, also successful, that freed Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from New Hampshire’s money-transmitter regulations.
Ammon lost his House reelection bid in 2018, but soon found a moment of revelation as he gazed out the window of his office at the Manchester airport. “There happened to be a seaplane on the tarmac,” he says, “and I thought: ‘A seaplane is just like a flying car. It’s a dual-mode vehicle.’” Ammon studied seaplane law. Then he wrote the Jetsons Bill. To promote it, he leveraged New Hampshire’s singular governmental structure.
The Granite State boasts the largest legislative body in the U.S. There are 424 representatives in the statehouse — one for every 3,207 residents, as opposed to one for every 500,000 in California. Citizen legislators are paid $100 a year, and many of them are idiosyncratic. One, a six-term Republican and realtor named Steven Smith, is enchanted with transportation in all forms. Smith, 56, makes and sells Matchbox-size “slot cars” and runs Smith Scale Speedway, a popular slot car racetrack, in his garage. In 2013, he vainly endeavored to sell his fellow legislators on a Personal Rapid Transit scheme that would have festooned the sticks of New Hampshire with a network of gondola cars, available on demand. “Everyone thought it was science fiction,” Smith laments. “We only got 44 votes out of 424.”
To hype the Jetsons Bill, Ammon turned to Smith, who in turn gathered the director of New Hampshire’s DMV and the state aeronautics czar. As Ammon remembers it, “That meeting was what ‘Live Free or Die’ is all about. It wasn’t ‘Let’s look for ways to restrict flying cars.’ No, it was ‘Let’s get this done.’” A few weeks later, the bill breezed through the legislature without opposition.
Roadable aircraft have never been mass-produced, mainly because designing them requires a difficult balancing act. “You need to build something that’s safe both in the air and on the ground, explains Terrafugia’s Colburn. “In the air, you want to minimize weight, and on land, you need to be crash-proof if you hit a brick wall. It’s a matter of threading the needle.”
The enterprise became more viable in the early 2000s when prices dropped on lightweight, tensile materials such as titanium and carbon fiber. Still, conducting research and development for flying cars can be perilous. In 2015, inventor Stefan Klein crashed in Slovakia while testing the Aeromobil 3.0, a flying car he’d spent more than two decades perfecting. He parachuted 900 feet to Earth and was mildly injured, but the Aeromobil was wrecked. In 2018, Sanjay Dhall, the founder of Detroit Flying Cars, likewise turned his own creation into spare parts.
All this means that when I visit Ammon in his sales office, there are no roadable aircraft to test fly. I’m resigned to using a flight simulator — and reminded, each time I blunder into a vertigo-inducing “crash,” that there’s a high bar to becoming a flying car commuter. You first have to become an FAA-licensed pilot.
There are additional problems. Even though flying cars are still under development, they already have an outspoken critic: Kevin DeGood, author of a 2020 white paper, “Flying Cars Will Undermine Democracy and the Environment.” An infrastructure policy specialist at the Center for American Progress, DeGood argues that flying cars will allow the super rich to wall themselves off from social problems that he feels demand “collective action” — for instance, alleviating poverty and climate change. The flying car, he adds, represents the “technological apotheosis of sprawl” because it will enable the airborne elite to settle far from cities and “unleash development of pristine lands.” These lands, DeGood stresses, “provide essential environmental services related to air and water quality as well as carbon sequestration.”
So far, activists have not joined in DeGood’s fight against flying cars, but some New Hampshirites foresee issues with local flight testing. Karen Harrigan, editor of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, wrote to me from the state’s remote North Country to argue that test pilots would “have to coordinate to avoid active logging jobs. They’ll also want to check in with Border Patrol, since anything that looks hinky within a few miles of the Canadian border gets their attention. I’m sure a felony stop during a test drive/flight is something they’d want to avoid!”
Ammon concedes that this is a rough moment for the roadable aircraft. “When I read about Terrafugia’s layoffs, it blew my mind,” he says. “But this industry has taken a long time to get off the ground, and we will move forward.” On Feb. 18, Pal-V updated its website with a splashy new video featuring a simulation of the Liberty, its wings outstretched among snow-clad mountain cliffs.
Ammon still foresees a glittering future. He won his House seat back in November, and has since sponsored eight bills. One would launch a study into enhancing New Hampshire’s nuclear energy production. Over a recent lunch in Concord, he explains the libertarian vision that underlies the church bill. “We’re not ants in a colony,” he says. “It’s important that we recognize the spirit in each individual, and it’s important that we give people choices.” As he sees it, this could mean allowing rich people to spritz about in flying cars.
“Libertarians are not selfish,” he assures me, “because they want each person to explore their own eccentricities, their own creativity. If everyone can do that, we’ll have a more free and happy society.”
After we finish, I climb into mySubaru. There’s a slot car race today at Representative Smith’s scale speedway, so I move west toward his home in Charlestown, on the Vermont border. The 75-minute drive is winding and hilly, over a route a flying car would cover much faster. The scenery is lovely. I pass through the villages of Henniker and Hillsboro. In Washington, near a white-spired church, a plaque notes that I’m now in “the first town incorporated under the name of GEORGE WASHINGTON.” Does it feel weird to be in such an old-timey place thinking about flying cars?
Actually, no. There’s an antique, almost pastoral quality to the true flying car. Compared with the likely to be lucrative, citified eVTOL, the flying car is a boy’s dream. It’s whimsical. It’s fun. And, I soon discover, Smith’s slot car track has the same vibe.
Situated in a garage at the end of a steep, gravel road, it’s a 54-foot, six-lane racing oval surrounded by Nascar posters and by six rapt, silent competitors, each manipulating the lever on a little flashing plastic wand while easing their a tiny car around the track’s tricky turns. Smith’s wife Adele is in the hunt today, as is a House colleague, Republican Tom Laware.
Each race has a sponsor. The winner of the Krud Kutter Islip Legends race, Smith’s 16-year-old son Gawain, is bestowed, post-race, with a gratis bottle of the cleaning product. After the group breaks at halftime for chili cheese dogs, Smith heads outside for a cigarette. I follow to ask what sort of transit he’ll push next for New Hampshire.
“Pneumatic tube travel,” he says. “Space flight on Earth!”
Smith is channeling an idea that Elon Musk floated in 2012 when he spoke of a “Hyperloop,” a transit system that would see passengers climbing into a bullet-shaped pod to zip through an almost frictionless, sealed-tube transit system. “In the mountains,” he concedes, “you’d have to smooth out the curves, but you could bury the tube and shave off some of the hill. Energywise, it’s agnostic. You can power it with coal, solar, nuclear — it doesn’t matter.”
Smith takes a long drag on his Pall Mall. “I have to admit I don’t know the cost,” he says. “I just know it’s cool.”