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Talk about autopilot!

By Gregory Mone
Popular Science
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(PopSci.comexternal link) -- Even though you'll park it in your garage, drive it to your nearest airstrip, and pilot it to your destination, don't think of the Transition as a flying car.

Carl Dietrich, the MIT aeronautical-engineering graduate student who is designing the vehicle, prefers the term "roadable aircraft" -- meaning a plane that drives, not a car that flies.

"We try to steer away from The Jetsons," Dietrich says. "It's a step in that direction, but a baby step." (See flying cars from science fiction)

Still, in an age of hub-centric commercial flights, Dietrich thinks the ability to cruise between two of the 4,800 small airports nationwide and then drive to a final destination, whether your office or vacation home, will be irresistible to amateur pilots.

He and his team are finishing a one-fifth-scale model for wind-tunnel tests. They hope to build a prototype within two years and to have the first Transitions rolling down runways by 2010. The projected price tag? About $150,000, roughly the price of a fully loaded Ford GT sports car.

1. Leaving Home: A fender-bender could ruin the aerodynamics of the plane, so the big challenge is to make the Transition both flight- and road-ready. In car mode, the tail folds up, revealing a bumper. The control surfaces of the twin vertical stabilizers fold inward, shielding the propeller from debris.

2. Driving: With only two seats and no trunk space, the Transition won't be ideal for trips to Costco. But the 6.5-foot-high car will be able to reach highway speeds, Dietrich says, and could be refueled at any gas station that sells super-unleaded gas. Expected mileage on the road: a not-too-shabby 40 mpg.

3. Transformation: On the runway, a flip of a switch starts the metamorphosis. The tail folds down, the wings flatten and lock into place, and the control surfaces of the vertical stabilizers line up. A security system, such as a thumbprint scanner, will keep Junior from "taking off" with the car.

4. Flight: With an air-cruising speed of 120 mph, the Transition will be able to fly 500 miles on a single tank of gas. Inside the cockpit, "it's all conventional general-aviation controls," Dietrich says, "so it should be familiar to pilots." In bad weather, you could simply divert to the nearest airport and drive the rest of the way.

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