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When Cars Fly

No, really. Your Skycar is just around the corner, if one visionary Davis company has its say

By Allie Gottlieb

DESPITE THE FACT that waiting for The Jetsons to become real has gotten old and stale, it's time to keep waiting. In six months, reporters will get to see a car fly. Everyone else, know this. The flying car that is not in your garage now will continue to not be there until at least 2006. And that's only if you're Richy Rich.

It's exciting, though, that someone's actually making flying cars. For more than a decade, Moller International in Davis has been plugging away in the lab trying to beat everyone else to the punch. Dr. Paul Moller, who taught mechanical engineering at UC-Davis and kick-started the school's aeronautical program in the late '60s and early '70s, has had the extremely rare privilege of flying a car. It was a prototype his company made about 10 years ago called the M200X, which was an honest-to-gosh flying saucer. A saucer that flew.

"We still have it here," Moller VP Jack Allison says about the M200X. "It's a good test vehicle for part of the technology, but it's not a very practical vehicle. A saucer's not a very practical shape for aerodynamic flight and transporting people and things. It's good for takeoff and landing."

Other companies and individuals have filed for patents on flying-car designs over the years and brainstormed with each other and the Federal Aviation Administration over "air-worthiness standards" for carcraft. But, Allison says, Moller stands alone in its progress. The current prototype, the M400 Skycar, looks more like a mini-fighter-jet dreamt up by an 11-year-old boy who can hum the entire Star Wars series soundtrack. No one has flown in the M400 yet. The tests have all been remotely controlled. When finished, tested and certified by the FAA, he says, the company will sell the Skycar for about $500,000. After things settle down and the flying car becomes routine, the price might drop to about $50,000 or $60,000, he figures.

Fast-forward to a time when one out of every other household has its own Skycar--also called a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or a powered lift aircraft. Allison sets the scene.

"We'll continue to live on the solid Earth, I hope," he says, differentiating the nevertheless cartoonish flying car reality earthlings can expect from the traditional Jetsons version. He describes a not-too-distant future full of "highways in the sky," and thousands of flying Skycars. He says there will be something called a vertiport, or takeoff and landing pad. Vertiports, from 35 to 50 feet in diameter, will pop up around neighborhoods and drivers will be able to head in their Skycars along regular streets to the corner vertiport and fly to work or school (or bar with a designated driver-bot).

Even though people continue to sing the "where's my flying car" lament, and I think we're all guilty of this, the prospect of one appearing seems startling and not yet believable.

That said, people with cash are sure about the future-mobile. Moller, funded by about 600 shareholders, many of whom are pilots, and money from profit the company's founder has made selling real estate and aviation technology products, spends about $150,000 a month working on its project, Allison estimates. In short, your flying car is almost here.

You can reserve your Skycar now. More than 100 people have, according to Moller's website. Visit www.moller.com for info on how to turn your $5,000 into a deposit on an M400.

The Future, Conan?

More glimpses into the future from Metro writers

Bring on the Robots: Some experts predict that we're entering the Robotic Age. Does that mean we don't have to pick out our own socks anymore? Not quite. (Traci Vogel)

Full Circle: When you graduate in 1984, the future is yesterday's news. (Todd Inoue)

Kill Your Computer: High-tech detectives can now find evidence you thought you deleted. (Najeeb Hasan)

Man or Asteroidman?: Scientist, Foothill prof and asteroid namesake Andrew Fraknoi speaks the truth about what's out there. (Loren Stein)

Implanted for Life: Help! There's a chip in my body and I can't get it out. (Corinne Asturias)

At the Movies--2053!: Metro film critic Richard von Busack travels 50 years into the future to review the kind of cinema we were supposed to be watching by now.

The Original Frontier: Humankind's confusing relationship with the time machine. (Michael S. Gant)

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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