Second system syndrome without shipping the first system

The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks identifies “Second System Syndrome” as a problem that can doom projects to multi-year delays and huge cost overruns (though not enough to sink a near-monopoly like IBM was in the 1960s). Software companies that have a successful “first system” out on the market write down a comprehensive list of everything that could be improved, then promise to fix all of those identified problems with a “second system”.

Terrafugia, the MIT spinoff company that has been struggling to get a flying car (a.k.a. “roadable aircraft” a.k.a. “do you want to get a door ding at Walmart in your $280,000 airplane”?) into the market has now announced the TF-X, which will solve all known problems with light airplanes, four-seat automobiles, and light helicopters. So the “second system” has been announced some years before the “first system” is likely to get into the hands of customers.

[I’m a little bit skeptical of the value of a flying car versus legacy airplanes. I flew a Cirrus SR20 to Indiana, Pennsylvania last weekend. At 150 knots the trip seemed endless, nearly three hours of flight time on the way back due to a 15-knot headwind. The purpose of the trip was to visit my cousin Olivia, who was performing (fantastically I might add!) in an Indiana University of Pennsylvania production of Lysistrata. Olivia is just a freshman and does not have a car. But guess what her best friend has… a car! So they picked me up at the airport, a five-minute drive from campus. Later in the afternoon Olivia’s mom, my cousin Lynn, showed up in… a car. So I now had two chauffeur-driven cars in which to ride. Lynn happily drove me to the airport the next morning. My ground experience would have been worse if I’d had to drive the Cirrus, alone, to the university and then the Comfort Inn. And the experience of going back to Boston at 75 knots of ground speed in a Terrafugia would have been horrific. The 2005 Cirrus that I flew, with its Avidyne glass panel and slightly crummy autopilot, is worth about $120,000, less than half the cost of a new Terrafugia and therefore insurable at a much lower annual rate.]

9 thoughts on “Second system syndrome without shipping the first system

  1. Well, the CAD video of the Terrafugia looks very nice, a real transformer, a feat of engineering!

    But this project, like any other real flying car project, miss entirely the point of the flying car dream, IMO. Because they just apply current knowledge and techniques, classical mechanics and thermodynamics.

    What the flying car dream would require is something radically new. A new principle of levitation and propulsion. Something “magical” perhaps like
    In any case, more like flying saucers than hybrids between plane and helicopter.

    And if you have to start and finish legs on the road, it’s a failure. The real flying car won’t need any road.

  2. Seems they’ve gone into full Moeller air car territory with the new one. I.e. it seems an impossibility it would actually fly. How are wings of that size supposed to hold up a body of that size? Any other light aircraft with a wing loading like that? Sure looks like there will be no CG issues with the wings back that far, no sir. They’ll also be the first to have finally perfected ducted fan propulsion outside of jets and model airplanes.

    Here’s an opportunity to enter the test pilot biz Phil.

  3. From the very first I couldn’t figure out how Terrafugia or anyone else could possibly make a roadable airplane that would fit within the LSA weight limits unless it was made out of a million dollars worth of carbon fiber, maybe not even then.

    Terrafugia is now asking the FAA for a higher LSA weight limit for their flying car. After how many years of development?

    I agree with ScottE. Terrafugia has jumped the shark and landed on planet Moeller.

    Besides Scott’s points, note that they also plan to make this new aircar a human rated UAV. AND their human rated UAV will be some kind of tilt-rotor.

    It took Bell literally over 50 years to field their first tilt rotor airplane V-22. The Bell XV-3 first flew in 1953. The V-22 was first flown by line military pilots in 2005.

    Note that the V-22 is considered among the most difficult of all military airplanes to fly. And it is flown by two profesional pilots with years of full time training behind them.

    Ozzie and Harriet are not going to jump into their Terrafugia, push a few buttons, sit back, and enjoy the fully automated ride to Peoria. Not in our lifetime.

  4. As a concept, the PAL-V makes more sense than the Terrafugia, but I do see a practical problem or two.

    The typical mission the Dutch designers have in mind is a quick ride to your local airstrip, fly to the airstrip near work and then drive the last bit. Seems fair enough.

    From my own experience growing up in that country, darkness, fog and rain are likely to be a show stopper and most days you’ll likely just end up riding a very, very expensive motorcycle to work.

    As a “fun flying toy”, even the ICON A5 has more appeal.

  5. Phil G,

    I never really understood why so many people over the years have been obsessed with flying cars. We have already perfected a flying machine which could take off and land vertically and fly over traffic. I don’t see what advantages a “flying car” would have over a helicopter. Do you know of any?

  6. Tucan: That is a good question! Originally the Terrafugia Transition was supposed to cost about $130,000, substantially cheaper than a certified two-seat helicopter such as the Robinson R22. But now the two-seat flying car, if it ever ships, will cost nearly as much as a four-seat Robinson R44. The R44 will cruise at least 20 knots faster than the Transition. I think the best answer is that the R44 cannot in fact be “driven” to most urban destinations whereas in theory the Transition can be. Even in the suburbs it would be tough to get permission from property owners to land one’s R44.

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