Cruising Altitude

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

You will enter the coordinates of your destination into the dashboard, and a central network will automatically guide you to the desired address. That's where the FAA and NASA come in. Already government scientists are working to design a network of highways in the sky, which NASA calls SATS (Small Aircraft Transportation System). The Global Positioning System (GPS) currently in place and a phalanx of broad-band satellites will monitor the exact location of every vehicle in flight (some commercial airlines are now monitored this way).

Bruce Holmes, manager of NASA's General Aviation Program, is chiefly responsible for planning the SATS digital infrastructure. "As the Information Age unfolds, a new economy is [emerging]," says Holmes. "However, the impending saturation of the highways . . . will limit this economic expansion, especially for smaller communities across the land." He argues that the new economy cannot reach its full potential unless we move people and goods around as efficiently as we move information.

With their Aviation Roadmap NASA hopes to "enable doorstep-to-destination travel and accessibility throughout the nation's suburban, rural, and remote communities at four times the speed of highways and equivalent costs." The problem is, because the concept is so novel, no organizational structure yet exists to develop it. "Until the [aeronautics] industry can compellingly demonstrate the new technologies for highways in the sky, it will be hard to convince national policy makers of the importance of the opportunity," says Holmes. He points out that it will be easy to dismiss the volantor concept as "delusional"—just as Henry Ford and the Wright brothers were dismissed as delusional.

The crucial move at this point is to find immediate, practical applications for the Skycar that can bypass political obstacles and will legitimize it for the general public and large-scale investment. Dr. Bushnell sees three obvious possibilities: a "flying jeep" for the army (the military doesn't have to worry about FAA certifications and regulations); a robotic mail-delivery vehicle (mail delivery was one of the first applications for the airplane, and the postal service also has milder regulations given that it's not transporting humans); and public transportation in developing countries, which are leapfrogging industrial-age technology altogether. Moller sees another possible application as a sky taxi in congested foreign cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok.

At this point Moller has engineer wonks drooling, but strategic possible investors like Boeing or Chrysler need to see the thing fly. Still, Lahore believes the initial launch will elicit interest from investors. With good reason: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends 24 percent of personal expenses on transportation. Bushnell predicts that the market for Moller vehicles will be about $1 trillion a year.

But there's a lot of evangelizing to do. In 1940, Henry Ford declared, "The combination plane and automobile is coming. You may laugh, but it will come." But since the company came out with a concept flying car in the '50s called Volante, Ford hasn't pursued anything in avionics. "I doubt I could find anybody at Ford who would want to speculate about flying cars," says corporate spokesperson Wes Sherwood. Both Ford and Chrysler say the future they're looking at is a "telematics" system that would network all cars to a central computer for constant safety and traffic information access, and smart highways where cars will drive themselves, using sensors.

"Big companies don't create new technology," Moller says. "They don't change the paradigm, they maintain it. Look at where the personal computer came from: a garage. And the government feels threatened by private industry doing what they can't do. They fought the Wright brothers to the very end—giving grants only to the Smithsonian or any other government agency that could beat them." Plus, argues Moller, the military and blue-chip companies don't have the necessary economic constraints. "They have jet engines at their disposal that cost several million—that is their world. My constraint was to produce something that can be mass-produced, that can move millions of people around the world, not a few hundred."

There are some practical snags—Skycar is probably too loud for neighbors right now and has to be made more "roadable" so you can drive it to the local launch pad, or "vertiport"—but these are relatively insignificant. "On an engineering level Skycar is good to go," says Lahore. "There are a lot of political issues, and our tendency is to accept current restrictions on transportation. But we've got to move ahead."

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