High Design.

David Pescovitz interviews the designer of Terrafugia's flying car

In the world of design, urban mobility is much more than how you get from point A to point B.

Urban mobility operates at the intersection of myriad innovation freeways, from architecture to infrastructure, technology to transportation, city planning to style. It's about feet, fashion, bikes, busses, automobiles, and yes, even cars that fly. For my longtime friend Jens Martin Skibsted, a Danish industrial designer, urban mobility is a fertile ground for experimentation. In 1998, Skibsted founded Biomega, a luxury bicycle brand whose unique two-wheelers are in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art and the SFMOMA. In recent years, Skibsted has brought his urban mobility mindset to Puma, designing an entire line of sharp city bikes that fold up or feature bike locks integrated into the frame. Indeed, he's even created a Puma bike sneaker to wear when pedaling.

Recently, Skibsted and his partners in the KIBISI design studio have taken a less grounded look at the future of urban mobility when they were asked by Woburn, Massachusetts-based Terrafugia to redesign their flying car. The result, Terrafugia's next-generation Transition Roadable Aircraft, was unveiled on Monday. The Federal Aviation Administration is on board, having granted an addition 110 pounds within the Light Sport Aircraft category so that the Transition can integrate typical safety features found in cars. A scale model is now under construction and reservations are accepted for $10,000 with delivery planned for late next year. Previously, Terrafugia announced that the sale price would be in the $200,000 range. I spoke with Skibsted about the unique design challenge of building a car that flies. Or is it a plane that drives?

How did this project, er, get off the ground?

Tony Bertone, who is Puma's chief marketing officer, is a great friend and for some reason, when it comes to transportation he thinks I'm the guy to call. He invested in Terrafugia and had told the owner that I should be brought in as a designer. The original Terrafugia vehicle looked like an old James Bond aircraft and they realized that you can't make something that looks like that and still get it sold. While I was at TED two years ago, I talked on the phone with Terrafugia's CEO Carl Dietrich and discussed the project. Around that time, I had also started working with two other guys, the architect Bjarke Ingels, who spoke at TED, and Lars Larsen who had done electronics and furniture. We all had very different capabilities, and the plane was the first thing we worked on together. Talk about a flying start.

I'd imagine that designing a flying car is a unique challenging project.

Although KIBISI likes working on concepts for unusual objects and designs, this is not one of those things. This is a real vehicle that needs to fly. Usually, you have designers ping-ponging ideas with engineers. But this project had three stakeholders: us as designers, mechanical engineers, and then the aerodynamics engineers. Not only did we have back and forth between both of those groups, but at the same time they were battling with each other. For example, the mechanically cool engine might make the plane too heavy to fly. On top of those teamwork dynamics was always the question of whether is this a car or a plane? Or is it something else entirely? We ended up where it's mostly a plane.

What were some of the approaches you took?

In the end, we had 3 different design directions that we brought to Terrafugia. One was very plane-like, one that was much like a car, and a third that looked a bit like a helicopter. That was just far too strange though. Some of the company's engineers wanted the design to be very Testosterone-driven, but we thought that look wouldn't be particularly inviting. So we took it more toward the direction of a Volkswagen, so there's at least a bit of familiarity and the feeling that the machine is trustworthy.

How limited were you in the design choices you had?

This project has not been about aesthetics. We've brought a holistic view, but the aesthetic has to be in the background. Terrafugia is a start-up and has start-up challenges and limited resources. One of the ways to deal with that is to use standard parts to bring down costs. So therefore, we didn't have the option of designing the coolest headlights, for example, because we'd need to source those. So we focused on how to create an architecture where all of the components fit together, lines that go through everything, an inherent order where everything falls into place naturally. Terrafugia is a company of engineers. The management are engineers. The press people are engineers. The designer is an engineer. So the focus was on functionality. And since there are layers of engineers, it's hard for them to see the forest for the trees. Our job was to give them the picture of the forest.

Now that you've designed such a quintessentially futuristic machine, what's next?

Our dream would be to design an electric car. Most watches are made by watch designers, so that's why they all look alike. This is also the same with cars. Now things are being shaken up and we have a chance to reinvent the topology. It's a good time to bring in new people with fresh ideas from the outside to the auto industry. To all industries.

14 Responses to “High Design”

  1. Psywiped says:

    And the first fender-bender you get in totals the 200,000 flying car.

  2. wetwarefault says:

    I’d probably end its airworthiness just backing out of the driveway…

  3. Rosscott says:

    This just goes to show you. It’s the f-ing future.

  4. jeffwise says:

    Skibsted’s design aesthetic is very cool, but that’s not how you design an aircraft. A successful airplane must be engineered rigorously around the realities of the materials, aerodynamics, weight and balance, and so forth. It just so happens that an optimal aircraft, like an optimal bird or fish, looks beautiful. It’s a kind of beauty that’s baked in, not the surface kind of beauty that a designer adds as a flourish.
    For that reason this interview only deepens my misgivings about Terrafugia, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics and cross-posted on my own blog: bit.ly/bPVpTO

    • David Pescovitz says:

      Jeffwise, did you read this:

      “Although KIBISI likes working on concepts for unusual objects and designs, this is not one of those things. This is a real vehicle that needs to fly. Usually, you have designers ping-ponging ideas with engineers. But this project had three stakeholders: us as designers, mechanical engineers, and then the aerodynamics engineers.”

      And if you did, what makes you think that the vehicle wasn’t “engineered rigorously”?

    • Chrs says:

      That, and “This project has not been about aesthetics”, followed by mentioning that basically everybody involved is an engineer.

      Anyway, the design compromises look like they were mostly to get the length down, rather than make it look better.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Whoa! Format change! Are more magazine-esque posts on their way?

  6. Hank says:

    But it’s still not a flying car. It’s an airplane you can drive on the road. If I have to go to an airport to get airborne, I’m in a plane.

    I want my flying car.

  7. Donald Petersen says:

    “Underwritten by Gillette”?

    Now I kinda feel bad for not plugging them while talking about my Shlock Tree during my comment in the shaving baby article a few days ago.

    Anyway, were this happening a decade or two ago, I’d be perfectly tickled about this thing. Go to the airport? I’d feel like I could get away with using a mile of sufficiently-deserted country road to get airborne.

    But now, in today’s world… never mind the high cost, this thing’s utility will be regulated out of existence, I’ll bet. Might as well just get a used Cessna.

    ‘Cause, you know, putting unlicensed (or underlicensed) personal aircraft in the hands of the Common Janes and Joes of the world is just asking for more (or worse) terrorism.

    We’re ever so much safer, you see, if terrorists can only travel on foot. Or by skateboard. Or Chevy Astro.

  8. jeffwise says:

    I did read that part, and it still doesn’t make sense to me. A plane needs to be built around the aerodynamics — I don’t understand what Skibsted’s role would really amount to, unless Terrafugia’s goal is to make a cool-looking mock-up.
    Perhaps I’m missing the point. But there are other aspects to the Terrafugia story that give me pause, as well. On Monday the company announced that it planned to deliver aircraft to customers late next year, but this is flat-out impossible. Not only have they failed to obtain FAA certification, as I make clear in the blog post mentioned above, but they haven’t even built a flying prototype of the new model. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of money.
    If I sound like a raging negaholic, it’s only because the world of aviation has been visited time and time again by visionaries who promise transformative vehicles, use their visualizations and mockups to raise money, and then fail to deliver.
    I love light aircraft, and I love that people dream of flying in new ways. But building a revolutionary new aircraft and then making a profit selling it is incredibly hard, and I think it’s easy for that reality to get overlooked in the excitement.

  9. querent says:

    Since it hasn’t been said yet: pretty damn cool!

  10. Anonymous says:

    When it comes to wing design I think the less hinges the better. And if there must be hinges, I would avoid wings that fold in an upward fashion. Call me crazy.

  11. Anonymous says:

    There’s a good reason why pilot licenses are orders of magnitude more difficult to obtain and retain than driver licenses. I don’t need dozens of shoddily-maintained aircraft sputtering over my children’s school. I don’t want senior citizens that cannot navigate in 2 dimensions having a go at 3.

  12. Anonymous says:

    A flying car is an insane idea. Take two things that separately can be made to work quite well, and then combine them, compromising the functional aspects of both… not a good plan. Add in the idea of having people who already have a hard time maintaining the discipline to drive on a road, flying over all our heads, while texting, or yakking on the phone, mix in some poor decisions regarding weather conditions, and you have a recipe for disaster.

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