Magazine article Insight on the News

Space Car Prototype Prepares to Take Off

Magazine article Insight on the News

Space Car Prototype Prepares to Take Off

Article excerpt

An entrepreneurial engineer is set to test his plane-auto hybrid, a `Skycar' he predicts will fly within the next decade. The vehicle would be environmentally friendly as well.

A commuter's dream right out of a cartoon -- George Jetson flying a space car high above the traffic tie-ups and red lights -- is just days from its first test flight. An aeronautical engineer has put high hopes on his company's line of Skycars -- sort of a cross between a car and a mini-plane that can take off and land vertically.

"This vehicle is something your grandmother can get in and drive, even without a driver's license," says Paul Moller, president of the California-based Moller International, which has produced the prototype four-passenger M400. "Eventually you should be able to just push a button to go from D.C. to New York."

Moller, who founded and taught at the aeronautical-engineering department at the University of California at Davis, believes it will take at least until 2001 for the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the craft as airworthy. But the former professor has spent the last 30 years pursuing his dream -- a concept of "powered-lift" flight by which he hopes to revolutionize the world's transportation systems.

"What good does all this `advanced engineering' [on expensive automobiles] do for you when the speed limit is around 60 mph and you are stuck on crowded freeways anyway?" asks the company on its Website. Indeed, Moller compares his spacecar to Henry Ford's affordable Model T. "Think how fast the car went from being a toy to being something everybody had to have -- about 15 years." "Technology moves much more quickly today." How fast? Skycars will represent a major element of transportation within a decade, maintains Moller.

Flying the Skycar is controlled by an onboard computer; it has two more for backup. Powerful yet low-cost electronics are integrated in modern carbon-fiber materials to produce a lightweight shell five times as strong as steel. But the engines are the real secret to its effectiveness.

"The engine is the heart, the guts, the blood of this thing," says Moller. "Without it, you'd have nothing" Powered by eight rotary engines, the Skycar can develop almost 1,000 horsepower, though it needs just 600 horsepower for its vertical takeoffs and just 200 to cruise at 350 mph. …

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