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The flying car Terraugia's Transition

 

The Flying Car

It sounds like something from the wildest fringes of fantasy. But an American aeronautical company, with funding from the US Department of Defense, has developed a flying car that actually can fly and is actually available to buy. The Transition is a four-wheel vehicle, licensed for the road, which transforms into a plane in about 20 seconds and can then fly up to 500 miles. So an owner could take off from Edinburgh, for example, fly to London, fold up the wings, drive home and park in the garage.

"People tend to smirk when you say you're trying to make a flying car," says Carl Dietrich, the Transition's inventor. "But we're very serious about producing a flying car and selling it."

Dietrich began developing the Transition in 2006 at the headquarters of his company, Terrafugia, near Woburn, Massachusetts. The first test flights took place in New York State in 2009 and Dietrich expects to deliver a finished product to his first 10 customers next year, with production "ramping up" in 2014.

The Flying Car

Of course, the Transition doesn't come cheap. The starting price is $279,000 (pounds 177,000), slightly less than the cheapest conventional two-seater aircraft and about the same as a supercar such as a Ferrari. Dietrich expects that most purchasers will want the Transition for "recreational purposes" - which probably translates as "showing off".

Unfortunately, it won't be of any use to the frustrated motorist stuck in a traffic jam; the Transition needs a proper runway to take off. Nevertheless, Dietrich believes his design will be a useful tool for highly paid salesmen who have to travel large distances between customers.

The Flying Car

Anybody who wants to see what the car of the future might look like should sneak a peek over Gordon Murray's shoulder as he works at his computer. Murray, now 66, made his name with Formula One. His designs for Brabham and McLaren in the eighties won world championships for those teams and their drivers. He then turned his mind to conceiving the most exclusive and fastest road car in the world - the $1 million, 240mph McLaren F1.

But, since 2006, Murray has had something of a Damascene conversion. Sitting in a traffic jam on the A3 one morning, surrounded by big saloon cars going nowhere fast, he suddenly realised the future of driving depended on devising a way of manufacturing small cars at a fraction of the cost that they are made today.

The Flying Car

The result is the T.27, an ultra-compact electric vehicle. Only 8ft 2in long and 4ft 3in wide, the three-seater T.27 is so tiny that three of them can fit nose-to-the-pavement in a single parking bay and two are able to drive side by side in one lane of traffic, potentially doubling the amount of road space available without building new highways.

It's propelled by a lightweight powertrain and, thanks to special tyres and cutting-edge aerodynamics, uses only 1.12 pence worth of energy per mile, making it the most energy-efficient car in the world.

But what's really revolutionary about the T.27, and its petrol equivalent, the T.25, is the way they might be made.

The Flying Car

Up until now, it has always been easier for manufacturers of large cars - as opposed to small cars - to recoup the money they laid out on their factories. This is because factory costs are the same whether you're making a small car or a large car, but a large car delivers a much greater profit margin.

Murray has devised a production process that ends this disparity. Called iStream, it has been described as "bringing Ikea's flat-pack construction to the car industry". In a nutshell, the chassis is assembled separately from the body and pre-painted body panels are then mechanically fixed to the chassis at the end of the assembly line.

This, Murray claims, allows the factory to be a fifth of the size of a normal car plant and removes the need for skilled workers, thus reducing the cost of setting up a factory by 80 per cent. What's more, because the process is so simple, the T.25 and T.27 wouldn't necessarily have to be made by a traditional car brand. Dyson could make them. Or Virgin.

"It's a really good idea," says Richard Bremner of Autocar magazine. "After 100 years, isn't it time we came up with a different way of putting cars together?"

The Flying Car

Bill Ford may occupy the most prominent position in the world from which to survey the cars of the future. Executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, Bill Ford is the 54-year-old great-grandson of Henry Ford and one of the leading seers of the automotive industry.

A vegetarian, folk guitarist and taekwondo black belt, when he joined Ford's main board in 1988, Bill was asked for the sake of the corporation's image to end his membership of environmental organisations. He refused and' instead insisted on bringing environmental concerns to the heart of the corporation's policies.

Under Bill's influence, half of Ford's entire research budget has been channelled towards devising more fuel-efficient engines. On top of all this, quite literally, the roof of Ford's famous River Rouge complex has been planted with acres of oxygen-producing sedum plants, creating the world's largest roof garden.

Bill stepped down as CEO in 2006, but, if anything, this has allowed him to explore even more radical ideas. His latest mission is to rid the world of traffic jams.

"Right now there are about seven billion people on the planet and about one billion cars," he says. "By the middle of this century, there might be nine billion people and two to four billion cars. Those numbers are going to cause commensurately vast problems of jams and congestion."

His solution is a network of wirelessly connected cars that drive themselves and warn each other of accidents or traffic jams. And the idea is not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. Google has already invented a self-driving car, a fleet of which have now clocked up a total of 300,000 miles without a single accident. And Ford is involved in a field trial in Germany, spearheaded by Daimler, in which 120 specially equipped cars are driving around the roads of the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region, sending each other "status updates" on road hazards and jams.

Some visions of the future turn out to be way off the mark, but there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain: women are going to become increasingly important to the car industry in the next two decades.

Already women are estimated to be solely responsible for choosing 35 per cent of all new cars in the UK and to have an active role in more than 80 per cent of purchasing decisions. As these figures rise, both here and around the world, manufacturers need cars that reflect female tastes.

General Motors, the manufacturer of Vauxhall cars in Britain and Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick in the United States, already has a woman - Wulin Gaowa - in charge of its new "Advanced" design studio in Shanghai. Volvo caused waves at the Geneva International Motor Show in 2004, when it unveiled a concept car - complete with "ponytail holes" in the headrests - that had been developed by an all-female team of five senior managers and three chief designers.

And four years ago, BMW revealed that the latest version of its Z4 sports car had been designed inside and out by two female designers, Nadya Arnaout and Juliane Blasi. The result, says Hilke Schaer, a senior designer at BMW, was a car that was more "human".

"You spend a lot of time in your car. It's no longer just a speed machine; it's a living space, and women are better at designing those 'emotional' details that make a car more personal."

Tesla Motors, from California's Silicon Valley, has already earned a place in automotive history for the electric sports cars it has created. But the world may have an even greater reason to be thankful to Tesla: the company is trying to kill off the traditional car salesman.

Since hiring Apple's former vice president of real estate, George Blankenship, in 2010, it has been opening stores across the United States that echo the Apple aesthetic.

Apple is generally considered to have revolutionised the computer store with its bright, minimalist venues, its "concierge desks" and its "Genius" shop assistants on hand to solve customers' computer problems. The Tesla sales staff - none of whom work on commission - are under orders to do something similar.

The stores feature coffee bars, touch-screen "Design your Tesla" displays and an open service bay so customers can watch technicians at work. The aim is to answer visitors' questions about electric vehicles, but there is no hard sell.

"Buying a car is not usually a pleasurable experience," says spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks.

"It's uncomfortable. There's pressure to put money down. You're told, 'If you put 10 per cent down today, I can offer you a discount'. We don't say that. Our goal is not necessarily to sell you a car. For the first time ever, we want you to leave a car salesroom with a smile on your face."


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