Paul Moller On Moving Mobility Into Three Dimensions
By Bill Moore
If every car, truck, and bus in the world were fueled by renewable hydrogen, generating no pollution or climate altering carbon dioxide, we'd still be in trouble as a society, because we still will not have solved the other big issue facing our transportation system: congestion. In many parts of the world, there are just too many motor vehicles competing for that other finite resource, motorways.
But what if we could vault our one-dimensional, personal mobility system into the third dimension, where travel was no longer restricted to a single strand of concrete or asphalt, but into five miles worth of airspace above our heads? That's long been the vision of Dr. Paul Moller the inventor of the long-anticipated, and equally long-delayed Moller Skycar. In this exclusive one-on-one interview at Moller's Davis, California research park, EV World's editor discusses the past, present and future of a technology that might just make automated, personal air travel on renewable fuels feasible.
Moller Research sits in an industrial park just a block or two south of Interstate 80 and a couple of miles from the UC Davis campus. The low, single story office building is sided in redwood. Attached to it is a larger metal frame building housing the facility's wind tunnel, machine shop, model fabrication, and storage hangar for the surprisingly youthful-looking Moller's collection of powerboats, hybrid-electric car and three exotic, one-of-a-kind flying machines. Still, the place has a decidedly long-in-the-tooth feel about it, an impression reinforced by a musty, mildew smell, perhaps accentuated by the long rainy spell that has saturated northern California over the winter.
I found Moller in his office, which overlooks a small open air garden wedged between the office complex and the wind tunnel building. I was about an hour late due -- appropriately enough -- to an airline schedule problem. He was slated for a 1 pm conference, but he graciously took nearly two hours of his time, skipping his lunch, to talk to me and show me around his complex.
The first surprise of the day was the discovery that Moller had actually built a series-hybrid passenger car, which I'd see a bit later. Installed in a mid-1990s Honda Civic hatchback, the car used Moller's amazingly powerful Wankle rotary engine to drive a generator that powered an AC Propulsion drive. He told me the car was still drivable, but it really worked best as a commuter around town than on the Interstate, where a parallel drive architecture made more sense. The project was eventually abandoned, according to Moller, because he had used failure-prone Boulder Batteries. Plagued by poor quality control, the short-lived Colorado company declared bankruptcy and shut its doors.
Despite the failure of the series-hybrid, Moller still seems intrigued by the technology, demonstrating a pronounced interest as I explained to him how General Motors had shrunk the size and complexity of the EV1's controller over three generations. He remarked that he could really have used that technology in his car, where space was at a premium. You could sense the wheels spinning as his fertile brain played with the idea how he might redesign his hybrid Honda, now collecting dust in the building behind him.
The concept of saving space and weight is not lost on a man like Moller who for the last thirty years -- though to look at him, you would think he must have begun his quest shortly after entering puberty, he doesn't look a day over 45 -- has been wrestling with both problems.
Moller knows a lot about weight, space and power.
"I always compare my vehicle to the metabolism of a hummingbird," he told me with the hint of a sigh as he pointed to a model of his latest Skycar. "That's a twenty-four inch duct with 300 horsepower in it."
His Wankle-based Freedom rotary motor is a mere 10 inches in diameter and paired in a single nacelle that is only 24 inches long, the two motors together generate more than 300 horsepower. Some hummingbird. The M400 has the equivalent of more than 1200 hp. In all likelihood, it will be this amazing motor -- and not the Skycar -- that will make Moller his fortune and finally earn his long-patient investors a return.
From Moller's perspective, technology -- and maybe the fates -- are finally starting to converge in a way that will make his long-held dream a reality. That dream is millions of automatically-controlled Skycars, racing along invisible electronic highways in the sky at speeds of over 300 miles per hour at altitudes up to 24,000 feet. With the advent of public GPS navigation systems, affordable "glass" cockpits and his extraordinarily light, small and powerful engines that run best -- and here was the next surprise -- on 85% ethanol and 15% water(1), it could become a reality someday in the not too distant future. Moller is confident we'll get there someday, though he acknowledges it may not be in his lifetime.
One sobering statistics lends a clear sense of urgency to his vision. He told me that he once testified before Congress with the then head of NASA that every 10 years, vehicle miles travelled increases by 30 percent. Yet in the last ten years, the actual number of highway miles has only expanded at two percent and in the next ten years, it is slated to be less than one percent. Sooner, rather than later, parts of America are going to begin to experience the same grid lock often found in Britain and Europe, where a hundred miles of Autobahn or Motorway can be stalled for hours. But unlike Europe, America has no widespread, mass transit alternative like the high-speed, passenger rail systems of Europe and Asia.
Siting in Moller's office just a few hundred yards off what is arguably the nation's busiest east-to-west artery, Interstate 80, it's easy to see this eventuality. Living just a few miles off I-80 myself here in Omaha, like Moller in California, I get to witness the problem on a daily basis as more and more heavy trucks and commuters vie for what all too quickly becomes a narrow, beat-up four lane stretch of concrete that roughly follows the path of the old Oregon Trail and Union Pacific railroad. A blizzard in Wyoming can bring commerce to a halt as tens of thousands of semis sit idling for hours while road crews struggle to reopen this vital highway.
Moller and his supporters at NASA have tried to persuade Congress to provide funding for 21 st century electronic skyways here on earth, instead of spending money on Mars. Their experiences on the Hill have convinced them that Congress won't take the problem seriously until the Congressmen and Senators who hold the purse strings and the power can't get to the airport.
Pragmatic as well as visionary, Moller acknowledges that his Skycar isn't going to replace our current transportation system, but he sees an important niche that, if exploited, could immediately ease the nation's impeding traffic crisis. He told me that 85 percent of America's accumulative miles traveled are for trips of fifty miles or more. He argues that it is those trips of fifty miles or more that could be made by Skycar at speeds up to 300+ mph.
Interestingly, Moller admitted to me that his focus has shifted somewhat from the Skycar, itself. He now appears to have virtually all of the pieces in place to make it feasible from a manufacturing standpoint. He's perfected his engine, which is the heart of his "hummingbird". He now has all the necessary micro-computer control technologies and the super-light, but steel-strong carbon composite materials for the vehicle itself.
Instead, he told me he is concentrating his efforts on getting the electronic skyways built, because they are the final piece of the puzzle that will enable automated and controlled management of millions of Skycars whizzing along at near jet speeds. He explained there is a new generation of GPS satellite systems coming online which will offer global coverage and the necessary redundancy to insure safety, in the event one system goes down.
As Moller conceptualizes it, Skycars won't require a pilot's licenses, which is necessary to operate today's light general aviation aircraft. Instead, a driver and his passengers -- the prototype M400 has space for four people -- will program their destination into vehicle's computer, which is networked to the federally-managed airways system. The flight is logged into the system, assigned its route and sequenced into the flow of aerial traffic. The Skycar will lift off vertically or nearly so after a short roll like a Harrier Jumpjet. Under strict computer control and with no human intervention, it will climb to its assigned cruising altitude and speed. The passengers can relax and enjoy the ride. Once it arrives at its destination, the Skycar will enter its programmed descent-to-landing phase. A three-hour, 185-mile car trip from Sacramento to Monterey would take less than one hour and the scenery would be spectacular.
What about fuel economy? Moller estimates the M400 will get more than 20 mpg, that's better than your average SUV.
Not Just For the Elite
When and if Moller ever brings his Skycar to production -- and he said he will not do the manufacturing himself, relying instead on experienced mass manufacturers with whom he would partner (Detroit, are you listening?) -- he doesn't want this to be a vehicle for a handful of the wealthy elite. He told me he would consider his idea a failure if that is who ended up benefiting from his efforts. Of course, considering the advertised list price of an early production version of the Skycar is $995,000US, it's hard to see who but the very rich could afford it.
"There are two things that have guided me for thirty years in this, one is cost and the second is safety; and that drove a lot of things that are unique about the vehicle," he emphasized.
He explained that he has built redundancy into every aspect of the Skycar from it's fly-by-wire controls, to its on-board computers, to its four nacelles each housing dual Freedom rotary engines. He stressed that Skycar is designed to hover even if it loses an engine or continue to fly if it losses power in any of its four nacelles. It can even land at 45 mph with a total loss of power, and that presumes the Skycar's twin safety parachutes haven't successfully deployed.
Moller reminded me that 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of others are injured, some permanently. Part of the reason he believes can be directly attributed to increased highway speeds and growing congestion, despite safety improvements like air bags and improved crash worthiness design. There are simply too many cars travelling too fast in what amounts to a single dimension.
While the price for the first 500 or so Skycars will top a half million dollars, Moller believes the cost can be brought down to as low as $60,000 apiece, still three times the cost of an average family sedan today, but within the reach of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, and perhaps millions more if co-ops formed around the technology.
Speaking candidly about when we might see the development of a three-dimensional skyway system, populated by Skycar-type vehicles, Moller told me, "I can't tell you how far away it is. I believe that if the national priorities change because the situation becomes bad enough..." He paused for moment than resumed.
"We're a funny country, we all of a sudden tune into something and we go like hell, and when that happens... and I can't tell you when that happens, a year from now, five years from now... but when that happens, it will be a relatively short period of time. Fortunately, the infrastructure will be in place or close enough in place that it will take a relatively short period of time for it to be useful within this context."
PART TWO CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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