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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Gets a Step Closer to Reality

Future commuters may jump into their cars and fly to work

THE flying car.

Henry Ford predicted it. Ian Fleming fantasized about it. Now Paul Moller wants to build it.

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If all goes well, he will. His Davis, Calif., company - Moller International - could start rolling out flying cars as early as next year. ``Everything's done,'' Mr. Moller says. ``The technology's there.''

The delay is lack of funds. After spending 25 years and $35 million to design a fly-drive vehicle, he says he needs another $3.5 million to build six production vehicles. Moller is meeting with investment bankers to raise the money.

The flying car seems like the logical successor to the automobile. Ever since the first decade of this century, entrepreneurs have tinkered away at the problem. Some 20 flying-car prototypes have actually flown over the years, but none has taken off in the consumer market.

Now, after 40 years of little activity, interest is picking up. Palmer Stiles, a mechanical-engineering professor at Florida Tech in Melbourne, Fla., has discovered seven patent applications from the 1980s and nearly that many in the first four years of the 1990s. ``I see it resurging,'' he says.

Of all the prototypes under construction in basements and garages around the country, Moller's is the best-financed and perhaps the most sophisticated. It uses a proprietary rotary engine to carry four passengers up to heights of 30,000 feet and move at speeds of 350 miles per hour. Technically, it's like making a Ford Escort with 13 times the power. Aesthetically, it's the hybrid of a fighter jet and the Batmobile.

``This happens to be the best of all that I've looked at,'' says Henry Lahore, an engineer with Boeing Commercial Aircraft Group, who has studied the Skycar extensively. ``It's technically elegant. It has the potential of being a safer way of traveling than any other mode of transportation.''

The Skycar, unlike many of its competitors, takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter. That feature gives the vehicle more places to take off and land than fixed-wing craft have, but it is also much more challenging technologically.

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Technologically, it can work, says John Zuk, chief of the civil technology office for NASA Ames Research Center. ``The acceptability is the big unknown.''

Like any new technology, the Skycar faces several hurdles. The first is cost. With an initial price tag of $895,000, the Skycar is not exactly an impulse buy. Even when the price comes down in, say, 2010, Mr. Lahore says he figures that the vehicle will still sell for $100,000.

Pilots may buy at that price, but it's out of reach for most consumers. ``Pilots are looking for new aircraft designs that are economical to fly,'' says Jack Kemmerly, Western regional representative of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Lahore estimates that the craft would cost, at most, $1.40 per mile per person, though much later models could come close to 30 cents a mile, rivaling the automobile. That compares well with renting a Cessna with a pilot ($1 to $2 per mile) or taking a helicopter ($1.50 to $2 if sharing the ride with others).

The second hurdle is usability. Although the Skycar will supposedly be smart enough to fly itself - ``this is really a flying computer,'' Moller says - commuters won't be hopping into them to make the 1-1/2 hour trip from their Pittsburgh driveway to their New York office. Special air routes will have to be established in congested skies around big cities, experts say, and ``vertiports'' will have to be set up for takeoffs and landings.

``Landing in a driveway is very appealing, [but] these things just don't land any place,'' says Ron Borovec, editor of Roadable Aircraft Magazine, a small bimonthly publication in Edmonds, Wash. The downdraft of air from such a vehicle would be so powerful that any loose debris in a yard would go flying. ``The grass might survive, but the flowers won't.''

Jack Allison, marketing director of Moller International, says he foresees a long transition period before people can take off from their driveway vertiport. In the first phase, Skycars would be used as air taxis. In the second phase, individuals would fly them, but they would take off and land at neighborhood vertiports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it can handle a gradual increase in flying-car traffic.

The third and biggest hurdle is public acceptance. No one knows whether people really want to fly. In the late 1940s and early '50s, it seemed that the flying car was just around the corner.

``After World War II, there was a sense that we would have an airplane in every garage or a helicopter in every garage,'' Professor Stiles says. Two flying-car entrepreneurs got FAA approval for manufacture. One of them, Moulton Taylor, sold five of his Aerocars and, at one point, had top Ford executives interested in manufacturing the vehicle. But nothing came of it.

Mr. Taylor, like Moller and many other entrepreneurs, is busy with new designs he hopes will make him the Henry Ford of aircraft transportation. And some observers say they're getting closer to their goal.

``The question is not `if,' it's `when,' '' says Mr. Zuk of NASA. ``Basically, we're running out of space on the surface and we've got a lot of space in the air.... The technology is going to be developed.''

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