Cruising Altitude

A Visionary Inventor Takes the High Road— and Builds a Car That Flies

Flying cars have always been the favored mode of sci-fi transport—without them, Deckard, Skywalker, Buck Rogers, and George Jetson would have been horseless cowboys. Now these space pods are the next logical evolution in transportation, the most practical—and possibly the most feasible—alternative to the gridlock, pollution, and casualties that beset automotive travel.

Paul Moller considers airspace the world's greatest underused natural resource, and with this in mind he has built a personal aerial clipper ship with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Later this month, he is scheduled to officially debut his prototype in a test run at the Davis, California, headquarters of Moller International. The vehicle, called Skycar (the generic term is "volantor"), is about the size of a four-passenger sedan, cruises comfortably at an altitude of 25,000 feet and a speed of 350 mph, and runs on eight rotary engines fueled by natural gas. Aviation experts at NASA and Boeing say Moller's prototype is impeccably engineered—the first real harbinger of the age of civilian aeronautics.

"This is not some cutesy thing," says Dr. Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. "The volantor will do for car-based society what the car did for horse-based society." And, says Bushnell, "Paul Moller is one of the finest engineers in the country."

Moller grew up in rural Canada, "barely" went to high school and never went to college, but was discovered in night classes by a professor at McGill who threw him straight into grad school. He got a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering (with an aerodynamic specialty) in roughly three years, and a professorship at UC Davis immediately after. "This is a very intense man—he's a genius, and obsessive," says his McGill colleague Danny Guitton, a professor of neuroscience. "He'll work from early morning to late in the evening and forget to eat. When I helped him out I felt like a wimp for taking a sandwich break."

Moller has spent most of his life preparing for Skycar's upcoming maiden voyage. He has worshiped, since childhood, the physics of organisms like mosquitoes and hummingbirds that can hover and move backward, forward, and sideways. The Skycar is a tribute to that nimble, three-dimensional movement. It is also Moller's way of testing fate: most of the other VTOL aircraft that have been built (mostly by the military) have killed the test pilots. "Those crafts had critical components, meaning that if one thing fails, the whole thing tanks," scolds Moller. "We have designed one without any single point of failure. We have redundant stability systems for safety. I've been flying my own prototypes for 35 years and never been hurt." If all goes well, Moller's labor of love could make its way into your garage in the next decade.

Yes, your garage. This is about mass transit, not weekend aerobatics for business magnates. The original models will come out in the next two years and sell for about $350,000, but if in the next 10 years they go into mass production as Moller hopes, the price will drop to around $40,000. That's because the power plant for this vessel is based on the simplest technology: a refined version of the rotary engine designed by Felix Wankel in the '50s. "It's all about the engine," says Moller. "What is beautiful about Wankel's rotary is it has only two moving parts. The [basic] four-stroke engine has at least 20, and [they are] comparable in horsepower. Skycar is engineered so that nothing about the technology makes it too costly for the mass market."

It gets 20 miles to the gallon, and can run on "pretty much anything—from petroleum to recycled french-fry oil," says Moller (though fuel economy varies). The California Resources Board just tested Moller's engine in a jet ski and determined that "it was a big improvement, more powerful, efficient, and cleaner burning than conventional engines," according Russell Long, director of Blue Water Network, an environmental organization. Also consider that the flight paths will be far less circuitous than fixed roadways, which increases environmental efficiency.

The lift system is also relatively simple: high-powered engines drive fans that draw air into chambers called nacelles, where vanes like venetian blinds direct the flow downward for takeoff and backward for thrust. Moller has poured four decades of R&D and an estimated $125 million—gathered from 400 stockholders and the revenues of his inventions and real estate investments—into the design of Skycar's engine, aerodynamics, and computerized brain. If he's not tinkering with spark plugs, he's in a wind tunnel, streamlining the vehicle for low drag (wind resistance) in three main areas: skin friction (a matter of area), profile (a matter of shape), and induced (a result of generating lift). The Skycar's physique is configured for maximum drag efficiency, and is a testament to Moller's belief that aerodynamics conflates engineering and art.

This vehicle is strictly "fly-by-wire": a computerized brain governs everything and can adapt to weather conditions, sense other crafts in the vicinity, and compensate for technical failures. "If there's some major problem with the aircraft—if it loses an engine or part of a wing breaks off—it is able to dynamically reconfigure itself to keep flying," says Boeing researcher Henry Lahore, who has thoroughly reviewed Moller's design and considers it excellent. "The human could never respond in enough time, but the computer can handle it just fine." The volantor will eventually have no human pilots at all. There will be designated recreational flying areas where licensed pilots can take the helm, but no room for error when it comes to questionable conditions or system failure.

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