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California Inventor's 'Skycar' Poised for Lift-Off - 2004-05-27

It looks like something from a Jetsons cartoon of the future, but California aeronautical engineer Paul Moller?s Skycar really does seem to work. He says it will replace earthbound cars, with the skies full of commuters zooming along virtual highways.

Paul Moller has been inventing things to whirl people through the air since he was a boy in Canada, and built a homemade ferris wheel. He demonstrates one feature of the Skycar M400, using a toy model. ?This is a four-passenger vehicle,? he says. ?It will still park in a one-car garage, which is sort of our criteria - with the wingtips folded.?

At 67, Dr. Moller has spent most of his career developing a flying car that takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter, but that flies much faster. There are two prototypes. The earlier one resembles a flying saucer. ?This is the aircraft that we?ve flown extensively in the past,? he says. ?It does everything the Skycar does, the M400, but it doesn?t do it very fast. The newest model is much more for the purpose of flying rapidly, efficiently. So it takes on, I hate to use the term a ?Batmobile? appearance, but it does move in a more elongated and streamlined configuration.?

In test flights, insurance and local laws require that the Skycar be tethered to a crane, but test flight footage shows it hovering freely above the lot. Paul Moller says the vehicle can run on any kind of fuel, from alcohol to hydrogen to natural gas, and is powered by eight small internal propeller-motors. ?That means you have on board close to 1,000 horsepower,? Dr. Moller says, ?which is a very large amount of power. But that?s the nature of the hummingbird, or anything else which has to lift itself up, and at the same time be able to go fast.?

The Skycar is controlled by multiple computers, so the driver programs in a destination, and uses only two levers for basic controls. Sitting in the cherry-red Skycar M400, Paul Moller demonstrates: ?This is your going-forward, this is your direction, and in the air, this is where you turn left or right. Really, all you?re doing is sitting in the cockpit, and saying, I want to go forward, pushes it forward. If you leave the stick alone, it waits for a command. Or you could pre-program it ahead of time, like to fly from Davis to Sacramento or from Davis to San Francisco. But that?s a little complicated today, because we don?t have the highways in the sky that we?re going to have later on.?

Paul Moller says those invisible skyways will be satellite-controlled, keeping cars safely on track even at 640 kilometers per hour. The Skycar is designed with back-up systems, and even the equivalent of airbags, he says, to make crashes almost impossible. ?We have four computers, so that if one computer fails, another one takes over. We have eight engines, so that if one fails, you continue to operate. And we have two parachutes [to land the Skycar if all else fails], so that even if only one parachute comes out, you will live through it. Your vehicle won?t look very good when it?s all over, but you yourself will survive it.?

While even just one Skycar sounds like a platoon of leafblowers, Dr. Moller says noise-canceling technology will keep the skies quiet. He points out that air pollution will also be much-reduced, since there?s no need for slow traffic in three-dimensional space. He believes the Skycar will have as much social impact as the automobile. ?You?ll be able to live outside the city, because many today live in the city just out of convenience. But if you have the ability to get from Sacramento to San Francisco in 15 minutes, that?s going to change the world, and you can go sell your apartment in San Francisco, and buy a palatial estate on the side of a mountain someplace, and put money in the bank as well, and probably pay for the Skycar.?

If that sounds like pie in the sky, well, Paul Moller says he?s spent half his career just raising money, $200 million in all, and has been bankrupt half a dozen times. But things are looking up -- he says he expects stock in his company will be listed soon on public stock exchanges, including the OTC Bulletin Board. And Mr. Moller says he has no doubt that ultimately, his invention will fly.