US maker of flying cars seeks mainland China partners

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:08am

Massachusetts-based Terrafugia is seeking strategic partners on the mainland to help fund its plan to put its flying car on the streets and in the air by 2016.

In less than a minute, Terrafugia's Transition flying vehicle can be transformed from a car to an aircraft by unfolding its wings.

Powered by a 100-bhp engine, it can reach speeds of up to 105km/h in car mode and cruise at 160km/h in the air.

Terrafugia co-founder and chief executive Carl Dietrich, visiting the mainland this month, said he was looking for equity investors as strategic partners for the first time.

After meeting government economic development groups, officials and potential investors, Dietrich said they were interested to know how flying cars might work on the mainland and what kind of timeframe he was looking at.

"We have been talking to private equity funds, government funds and individual companies that have similar business interest," he said after visiting cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Wuxi. "What ideally we would like to do is to get two of those three groups together."

He said the company, seeking to raise US$30 million in its fifth round of financing, had attracted some serious interest from Chinese investors.

The funds would be used to support the delivery of Transition, which made its first public flight at an aviation show in the United States last year, and to develop the next-generation prototype, the TF-X.

Dietrich said Terrafugia had received some pre-orders for the Transition, priced at US$279,000, and production was ramping up in order to be able to make deliveries in 2016.

The company said it had received US$30 million in pre-orders, which each required a US$10,000 deposit.

Dietrich, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's aeronautics and astronautics department, said the biggest challenge to making the flying car dream come true on the mainland was the uncertain timeframe for the opening up of its airspace.

That made it difficult to set a specific plan for bringing flying cars to the mainland, but the company aimed to have more conversations with government officials after finding strategic partners, he said.

"The general aviation market is brand new [on the mainland] and the space just started to open to private aviation," he said. "People are curious how long it will take to bring the products like Terrafugia's flying car to China. This is one of the concerns.

"But we think that in the long run, there is fantastic growth potential."

Mainland airspace is tightly controlled by the authorities.

Although the government has started to loosen control over low-altitude airspace below 1,000 metres, the time-consuming and complicated procedure for getting a flight plan approved has limited the development of private aircraft.

Gao Yuanyang, a director of the general aviation industry research centre at Beihang University, said the mainland was opening up its airspace, but it was a step-by-step process that would take time.

It would be a decent number if the mainland's private aircraft fleet could reach 10,000 in 10 years, Gao said.

Some estimates put the number of private aircraft in the United States at 220,000.

"Even for those certified private aircraft, it's now very difficult to enter China because of the strict management rules," Gao said. "It will be more difficult for new products like flying cars to get an approval."