[personal profile] firebreath613

By Lisa Hix

The cherry-red M400 Skycar, with its sleek, streamlined and somewhat phallic body, is a flying car superstar. It's always getting TV and radio time on CNN, NPR, NBC and ABC, and getting written up in places like Maxim, Esquire, Time, Wired and Popular Science – pretty good for a machine that's never been higher than 30 feet.

And perhaps rightfully so, as the Skycar has 44 years of research and development behind it. Its inventor, Paul Moller, has put $200 million of his own money into the project, which has lasted him INTO HIS THIRD MARRIAGE.

Moller is one cock-eyed dreamer hasn't given up on the concept of flying cars, although he prefers to call them roadable aircrafts that can take off and land vertically, or volantors, He sees a future with a sky highway filled with his automated Skycars.

For the company that claims to developing the way of the future, the Moller International headquarters in Davis, California, is surprisingly retro: located inside a '70s redwood-paneled office park, the office looks as though it hasn't seen new furniture or a new coat of paint since it opened. But Moller himself is remarkably well-preserved for 70 year old, nary a gray hair showing on his head and a face that could pass for 10 or 20 years younger. He talks in a deep voice that almost has a purring quality to it.

Currently, Moller has exactly two volantor prototypes in his showroom – the red Batmobile-esque M400 Skycar and the flying-saucer shaped M200 Jetson -- and neither one has been tested at high speeds, significant heights or long distances. For insurance purposes, Moller says, he only flies the machines attached to a crane via a tether. Every few years, since the late '60s, Moller has announced that mass production of his revolutionary air vehicles is just around the corner, getting much press and fanfare.

Moller acknowledges he's given to optimism, a quality that's known to frustrate his investors. "I suppose optimism is why I get beat up when I do other things, too, because I don't take perhaps into account the negative things that could happen that hurt you and slow you down," he says. "It's true. We've made many projections that we would be at a certain point, and we didn't get there, or anywhere near there in the time frame. My projections were made on our technical progress and took in assumptions of funding that did not come about for various reasons."

This summer, Moller announced that the Jetson – which is run by eight synchronized rotary engines and has flown up to 100 feet tethered -- would go into production as a ground-effects vehicle – meaning it's only allowed to hover 10 feet off the ground -- to avoid FAA certification. He says the first six of the Jetsons, with a projected top speed of 75 mph, will be built at Moller International headquarters, but he hopes to have at least a thousand made in a factory between now and 2010, to sell for about $90,000 a piece. The Skycar, which has only hovered off the ground briefly in 20-some tests, is waiting more funding to get its stabilization system perfected and redundancy system in place before it can be tested in flight and approved by the FAA. Moller projects that it could eventually go 300 mph at 2,500 feet, BUT HE STILL NEEDS HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, IF NOT BILLIONS.

"Although I'm all for Moller's science-fiction vision of the future, I think he's only trying to solve the sexy problem, which is how to create a flying car," says Daniel H. Wilson, author of "Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived." "And it's a problem that's been solved before. The boring problem is the problem that NASA was trying to solve. How do you make a flying car that someone's grandma could drive? Because human beings are not very good a driving cars, and we're even worse at flying airplanes. We'd kill ourselves in an instant."

Even though his other earlier prototypes and current two-person M200X, "The Jetson," resembles George's famous flying vehicle, Moller insists he wasn't inspired by science fiction at all. He takes more of his inspiration from "a sense of envy of the hummingbird's mobility." Growing up in rural Canada, walking to school in two-foot snowdrifts "convinced me there must be a better way to get around." Helping some hummingbirds that were trapped in their barn and, "and as I let them go, they kind hovered instantaneously and then (chute!) disappeared."

As a kid, Moller was always building – a little house when he was 6, a Ferris wheel could hold four of his friends when he was 11, a sports car when he was 14, a helicopter that never flew when he was 15. So naturally, when he started trade school in Calgary, Alberta, in the '50s, he spent his free time working on propulsion systems inspired by reports of UFO sightings.

"I've had a lot of people who talked to me personally, people whom I trusted, people who clearly were not crackpots, I assure you," he explains. "I did a serious study of the physiological effects of these so-called sightings, with the view in mind if I could correlate the physiological effects on humans, I might be able to get a little insight into how they work. "

While he worked a blue-collar job at Canadair in Montreal, Moller monitored graduated-level courses at McGill University until he impressed a professor enough to get recommended for graduate school. Never mind that Moller never attended an undergraduate class: He finished his Ph.D. in two years while concurrently developing vertical takeoff aircrafts. In the early '60s, he came to Davis, California, to work as a professor at the University of California, but resigned in 1968 to devote his time to his flying saucers.

Through the course of his life, Moller has shown a competitive daredevil streak: Getting bones broken playing hockey, racing and riding motorcycles, racing dirt bikes and go-karts, not to mention his interests in racquetball, skiing and unicycling. Now Moller jokes that he's looking into life extension so he can live see his Skycar succeed, but he seriously gets hair strand and hormone tests every six months to see what nutrients his body is deficient in. In 1972, Moller purchased a home with an almond ranch, and, after reading famous psychic Edgar Cayce's words about the cancer-preventing power of almonds, he started a side business called Quail Oaks Ranch, selling organic almond butter, which Owen Wilson orders by the case.

"Almonds are an incredible gift from God," Moller enthuses. "They're almost spiritual in terms of the balance between carbohydrates and proteins and fat."

Even though Moller International, a publicly traded company, runs in the red all the time, Moller's managed to keep his Skycar dream alive through various business ventures: He made $20 million in the late '70s-early '80s developing a tract of land in Davis into a research office park. In 1975, he created a high-performance muffler, known as the SuperTrapp, which are now found on the majority of motorcycles and racecars. He made more than $20 million before he sold that company in 1988. In 1985, he bought the Outboard Marine Corporation's technology for Wankel rotary engine design and turned it into a motor called Rotapower, which worked out to suit snowmobiles, jet skis and hybrid cars as well as volantors. He licenses these engines through a company called Freedom Motors.

Now he's working on developing a series hybrid engine for a plug-in car, which Moller says, will be sold to a major U.S. auto manufacturer. This year, Moller announced his company developed a breakthrough engine that runs on a combination of water and ethanol. Not only that, in recent years, he's purchased the famous Dixon, California, acreage known for its Milk Farm diner. He says he's turning the property into a "a center for alternative energy and health," which encompasses everything from hybrids to healing foods.

Even though some of his ideas may seem a little kooky, Moller shared a vision of the future with NASA, thanks to the accuracy of GPS systems, in which commuters would drive their Personal Air Vehicles to neighborhood airports to take off, and fly into a Highway in the Sky. This involves dividing the atmosphere into 250-foot layers, every layer going a different direction or vector, each layer representing a 30-degree vector change. "If you've got that, you can always go from Point A to Point B with one change along the route," he says. "One vector change along that route that would give you the complete flexibility to go almost anywhere. "

The whole messy pilot's license business can be avoided, Moller says, because the Skycars will drive themselves. "There's a world where you're going to be a passenger; you're not going to be a pilot," he says. "You're going to leave Davis and go to San Francisco, you just get on board and it's going to deliver you there" – a 60-minute car trip reduced to 15 minutes. "You sleep, you play computer games, you read, you do something else, you work. That time becomes a very useful part of your life."

But both of NASA's programs developing this system, started in 2001, the Personal Air Vehicle program and the Small Aircraft Transportation Systems lost their funding as the NASA leadership changed its priorities. And Moller was not encouraged by the response he got from Congress in the '90s when he, the head of NASA at the time, Daniel Goldin, and other experts testified about the future of aviation in the U.S.

"When we walked out that meeting, as a collective unit we all agreed that the only way that these guys are going to wake up is when the highway system really does stop," he says.

Price-wise, the M400 will cost as much as its cousin the helicopter, about $500,000, but could be dropped to less than $100,000 if 100,000 are manufactured. There's a waiting list with more than 100 reservations for FAA certified models, which Moller projects, perhaps optimistically, will be ready in 2010. "These are people who buy Ferraris," Moller says. "If they're going to buy it, they're going to pay up."

"Dr. Daniel Goldin said about 25 percent of Americans will have access to this vehicle within 10 years," Moller says. "That doesn't mean you'll own it. That might mean you lease it or you use it as an air taxi to an airport, but you'll have access to it. And he said 90 percent of the American population will have access to it in 25 years. That first number is a little optimistic I think, that second number is I'm really confident is true. But, boy, if national priorities change those could happen pretty quick. Because if you can take over 50 percent of people off the highway today, you should do a lot for the highway system. Ten years from now, you still got problems."

But Wilson remains suspicious that Moller's vision will come true. "Moller's created a beautiful cherry-red VISION of the future that's just that, a vision. I've never seen any evidence that the car flies," he says. "He's been talking for so long and he's put such care into the aesthetic details of the Skycar, you kind of wonder if he's decided to settle for the vision. Normally with any sort of scientific endeavor, you get the thing working then you make it beautiful, not the other way around. You don't put the icing on the cake until the cake is finished."

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August 2010

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