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Putting the "Car" into the Icarus Fable

By Jim Bray

September 15, 2004

The cure to congested highways may be just around the corner if one man’s dream comes to pass.

Well, maybe not around the corner, but above it.

The Skycar is the brainchild of Dr. Paul Moller, once of Fruitvale B.C. and now from Davis, California. His M400 "Volantor" is a four seat vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) commuter vehicle that, if it works, will truly be the George Jetson-type flying car of science fiction!

But it was nature that inspired Moller. "I loved the idea of having the freedom to take off from my back yard and fly to the mountains," he says, "And to me the hummingbird personified (that)." Moller was initially interested in helicopters, but "Helicopters are unforgiving, so the Skycar has backups to ensure you can’t make a mistake unless you intentionally do so."

Moller’s initial technical training came from the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (PITA - now SAIT) in Calgary, after which he earned his Masters in Engineering and a Ph.D. from McGill. In 1963 he went to UC Davis as a professor in its Mechanical Engineering Department, after which he began building his first full-scale prototype - in his garage.

The Wall Street Journal’s Startup Journal Center for Entrepreneurs calls Moller "That rare breed in today's big-money aerospace industry: an independent entrepreneur." His publicly-traded company, Moller International, is charged with developing the Skycar’s engines and aerodynamic components; the project is financed in part by investments from individuals with dreams of flight as well as the financial spoils Moller made from creating - and eventually selling his interest in - the Supertrapp motorcycle muffler.

The Skycar is designed to be so safe and automatic that driver input will not only be unnecessary, but unwanted. Moller envisions the cars as driverless "air taxis" passengers will simply need to input a destination code and then "go to sleep, read a book or play a video game while the Skycar takes them where they want to go."

The M400, which in 2000 the Christian Science Monitor said "Is beginning to sound less like something that belongs on the Sci-Fi Channel and more like part of the answer to gridlock," uses four pairs of rotary engines and ducted fans (one of each engine pair is redundant) to crank out 2800 pounds of thrust. Control comes from movable vanes that direct thrust kind of like in a Harrier jump jet, except that the M400 has no wings as such. Aerodynamic lift comes from the vehicle itself, a "lifting body" similar to what we may see in the next generation of space shuttle.

Moller claims the pressurized Skycar will be capable of climbing more than 1.6 kilometres in a minute, and travel nearly 1700 km at over 563 Km/h and 9144 metres.

While the Skycar may appear more practical for long distance trips than traditional commuting, opening up the skies like this could fundamentally change personal travel. Imagine if you could take your current time commuting from the burbs and spend it zipping comfortably from your acreage in Calgary, to your office on Bay street in Toronto.

Then again, the thought of unleashing incompetent drivers onto three dimensional space may seem frightening to some, given the number of fatal accidents caused every year by a myriad of existing driver errors and impairments. But, thanks to its extensive computerization and redundancy, the Skycar’s designed to be as "Bozo proof" as possible. Through the use of "SATS" (Small Aircraft Transportation System), a highway-in-the-sky concept, Moller says is scheduled to be ramped up this year, to help control civilian and commercial aviation traffic. SATS will make use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) as well as things like radio navigation and "obstacle-avoidance" radar to provide central control of air traffic with optimum safety.

"The human element is a liability," says Moller, "So we’ve built in all kinds of redundancy."

How about people who dream of actually flying the vehicle, rather than just sitting back and vegging out? Moller says there’ll be plenty of opportunity for "free flight" outside of the control network, though this will require the pilot to have a Powered Lift License.

Though Skycars aren’t meant for ground transportation, and may be as graceful on land as a walrus, they can be driven for short distances. Moller envisions designated "vertiports" that will, at least initially, act as official take off points for the M400 much as today’s Park ‘n’ Rides function for public transportation.

Moller hopes eventually people will be able to take off from home, with the central command system allowing your Skycar to rise from the ground and blend in with the traffic as seamlessly as space permits, the way cars merge onto a freeway today (or are supposed to merge!).

Pricing is (pardon the pun) up in the air at this point, but Moller estimates that if production approaches that of today’s automobiles, the sticker could drop into the $50,000 US range for the four place version and $100,000 for a six seater.

You shouldn’t expect the M400 to replace the car soon, at least when it comes to having one in your garage. But the commercial potential, for example as "sky taxis", may help open up the skies to a whole new way of thinking when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B.

Which means that, when one thinks about the future of personal transportation, things appear to be looking up.

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod