News & Politics

Cruising Altitude


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.

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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