What if your car could fly?

George Jetson had one first, but if inventor Paul Moller has his way, it won't be long before we are all buzzing around in vehicles that lift off like a magic carpet and fit in the family garage.

Dr. Moller's Skycar -more Luke Skywalker hovercraft than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -also has the potential to capture our imaginations in ways the Volkswagen Beetle never could.

"The ability to hop in your little vehicle and take off vertically is a dream for many people and is now really a potential reality," says Moller, who's been working on the Skycar for more than three decades and hopes to get it off the ground by year's end.

With airports and freeways clogged like never before, the idea of a flying car has captivated global investors and the media. Its potential intrigues NASA and the US Army.

Moller's candy-apple red vehicle is beginning to sound less like something that belongs on the Sci-Fi Channel and more like part of the answer to gridlock. Machines like his could ultimately fuel a transport industry worth a trillion dollars a year, according to NASA estimates.

Of course, it still has to overcome obstacles like Federal Aviation Administration red tape, the need for an air-traffic-control network, and actually flying. But if the Internet has taught us anything, it's that the future happens.

So, while the government sorts out what one day may be a highway system in the sky, Moller and his dedicated team are working away in an unassuming building in Davis, Calif.

There, on a shoestring budget, the folks at Moller International are looking for a solution to the future of travel the way Henry Ford did a century ago.

"Moller's machine may turn out to be the Model T of the age of these machines," says Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Though it could be 2005 before the Skycar is ready for initial investors to take it for a spin (2010 for you and me), its uses are already being envisioned.

From business to the battlefield

It could help police cover more ground and businesses make deliveries. It could also allow developing countries to leapfrog from no roads to sky roads in areas where building roads or bridges would be expensive.

The US Army envisions using the Skycar to modernize transport and medical evacuation (think flying jeep).

"When this technology that Dr. Moller has invented matures, and we are guaranteed that it will work, then it definitely has a place in the Army inventory. It can revolutionize the way we operate," says Col. Larry Harman, vice director of the Army's Combat Service Support Battle Lab in Fort Lee, Va. "The key is to prove that it flies, that it does what he says it can do."

Moller, who drives a Lexus with a license plate holder that says "My Next Car Will Be a Skycar," sees his vehicle being used for short trips that currently burden airports.

"Eighty-five percent of all planes today travel distances of less than 900 miles [the range of the Skycar]," he explains in an interview. "So if we can take those away, all of the sudden airports become what they should be: Places to get from San Francisco to New York, not places to get from San Francisco to Sacramento."

On paper, the Skycar sounds like a commuter's dream: You drive it out of your garage to a liftoff area called a vertiport, program in your coordinates, and away you go - fast. It is expected to have a cruising speed of 325 miles per hour, and go as high as 25,000 feet, but sadly, there are no in-flight meals, unless you hit the McDonald's fly-through window.

It will be able to burn alcohol, diesel, gasoline, kerosene, natural gas.

Even this four-seater looks more like a jet than a Jetta, it "does not require any skill to fly," says Moller. "You can sit in it and read a newspaper if you want."

All this convenience and mobility comes at a price, though -$1 million at first, but Moller envisions mass production bringing it down to around $60,000.

Of course, with widespread use, there is the question of gridlock and accidents moving from the highway to the skyway. Not to mention new overhead eyesores.

And first, the car has to fly.

"He's really trying to pull off a revolution, and revolutions are tough," says NASA's Bushnell. "The laws of physics are fine," he adds, but "he has to get it in the air. Otherwise, many people won't take it seriously."

Indeed, some engineers reportedly question whether the vehicle can generate the power for vertical take-off, while remaining light enough to stay airborne.

Childhood tinkerer

But that's just the challenge for a man who's been figuring out how things work since childhood. By age 10, he had built two tool-shed-size houses. By 15, a sports car, a ferris wheel, and part of a helicopter -a sign that his fascination with flying, and the mobility it promised a child growing up in rural British Columbia, had fully kicked in.

"I just had this opportunity to do things without anybody saying, 'You can't do that,' " he says, crediting his parents.

"Interestingly enough," he adds, "I was never interested in becoming a pilot or even flying in light planes. I only was interested in vertical takeoff."

He earned his PhD at McGill University after an adviser who saw his potential created a program for him, even though he had no undergraduate degree. He moved to Davis to teach at the University of California, and created the school's first aeronautical engineering program around 1965.

That's when his flying-car work began in earnest. He had to develop much of the technology himself, and by 1989 he created a flying-saucer shaped precursor to the current Skycar that actually lifted off the ground.

Unlike a helicopter, "on this vehicle there is no vibration," he says, "you basically rise and it's just truly a magic-carpet sensation."

Moller prefers this science reality to "Blade Runner" fiction. Television wasn't part of his youth, and he now reads several books and some 40 magazines a month. He comfortably talks about his trust in accounts of UFOs - and about his Skycar dreams.

"I'm reluctant to use that term 'dream' because I've always thought of it as very real. To me it's never been something that risky or not doable, because everything else I've done in my life I've more or less succeeded at.... Now, obviously I underestimated it enormously in terms of making it practical."

Underestimated is one way to put it. Moller says he's spent about $150 million in today's dollars, and seen test-flight dates come and go. Much of the money has gone toward extensively developing the Wankel-type rotary engines and electronic stability systems. He's been on the brink of bankruptcy several times, and got one major cash infusion from selling a motorcycle muffler he created.

On the waiting list

Small investors have helped keep him afloat, including a number who plunked down $5,000 deposits to reserve one of the first Skycars. "I have major stockholders from major companies all over the world," he says. But few big American investors have stepped forward.

Wall Street interest may perk up if flying cars start looking like a solution to overcrowded roads and airports. "This is not a technology issue, it's a culture and regulatory and governmental issue," says Bushnell. "Do we have to do this today? No. Can we do it today? Yes, if we work the infrastructure. Will we have to do it tomorrow or the next day? Absolutely."

Save a seat for Astro.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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