Paul Moller's Flying Car Dream - Part 3
By Bill Moore
It took a handful of fanatics at the controls of four commercial jetliners on September 11, 2001 to put to death the myth of America's ocean-spanning isolation from acts of foreign terrorism. For days following 9/11, the only aircraft in the air above America belonged to the US military(1). Both commercial and general aviation operations were halted as the United States tried to assess the scope of the threat confronting it. Days passed before the government finally reopen America's now-less-friendly skies to the flying public, and then only after implementing stringent passenger screening protocols.
So, what would happen if the airways of America were filled with tens of thousands of Moller Skycars? What risks would they pose to national security? That's the next question I asked Dr. Paul Moller, the Skycar's inventor during my 80-minute long meeting. His answer highlighted the promise and the peril of the "brave new world" in which we increasingly find ourselves as we race headlong into the 21st century.
Computer Control Essential
As discussed in Part Two of this three-part series of articles on my meeting with Paul Moller, it is his compact, but powerful "Freedom" Wankle rotary engine that is key to building a reliable and fast VTOL vehicle. Packed in tandem into four thrust modules are eight of these 10 inch diameter, 10 inch-long, alcohol-fueled engines, each capable of generating up to 160 hp, giving the four-passenger craft more than 1200 hp of take-off thrust. That's enough to lift 800 pounds of useful weight nearly straight up and then propel it at an estimated top-speed of 400 mph at altitudes up to 24,000 feet, all the while sipping the equivalent of just 20 mpg, half the consumption rate of a conventional fixed wing general aviation airplane.
Also critical to Moller's dream is the need for centrally-controlled, electronic airways system that relies on automated computer control of all vehicles at all times. A combination of computer control systems on the Skycar and integrated into a 21st century airway's control system would make hands-free flight possible. It would also, so Moller argues, make the use of his Skycar as a terrorist weapon, difficult, if not impossible.
His vision goes something like this.
The year is 2018 and you live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You have a business meeting scheduled outside of Washington, D.C., in nearby McClean. Before leaving home, you would program the Skycar's computer to take you to your destination, including entering your private security code. The computer would negotiate electronically with the Federal Skyway Administration's -- a fictitious new agency within the Department of Transportation -- central computer system in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. The two computers would agree on a flight schedule, including departure time, in-route speeds and altitudes and the arrival time. As soon as you are buckled in and give your consent to go, the Skycar would take-off on its own and fly its pre-programmed route. You would be the passenger, the computer would be the pilot. The only way you could modify your flight plan would be to request a change from the central airways management system. Autonomous, uncontrolled diversions would not be allowed.
Of course, I suspect the system would not be entirely foolproof, just as our current system allowed the tragic events of 9/11 to occur despite what were thought to be ample safeguards. Moller added that there is also a tremendous difference between a giant, 300-passenger wide body jetliner loaded with thousands of pounds of kerosene and the tiny, carbon fiber Skycar and its forty gallons of ethanol or methanol mixed with water. Deliberately crashing one into a building would have negligible effect, other than to take lives of the people on board or possibly victims on the ground.
But what happens in the event of an accidental engine failure? Moller has incorporated two emergency descent parachutes into the vehicle, one to safely slow down the vehicle from its 300 mph cruising speed and the second to safely bring down the entire vehicle. His redundant motor design should also minimize catastrophic accidents. He says that the vehicle can continue to hover if its loses one of its eight engines, and can still safely land at 45 mph even if it looses a complete power pod.
Moller added that he included the twin parachutes as "confidence" builders, telling me that one of the reasons another small aircraft builder called Cirrus has been so successful is that they, too, included an emergency parachute system with the airplane, enabling husbands to convince their wives the plane is safe.
In the case of the Skycar, he's supremely confident in the reliability of the rotary engine. He said he's tested them for some forty years and never had one fail.
The Specter of Gridlock
Our conversation turned back to the subject of traffic congestion. I asked him how many vehicles could an automated skyways system support. He replied that his numbers suggest that you could take the entire motor vehicle population in North America, separating them by 500 feet vertically up to 24,000 feet and still have them be horizontally separated by miles. By contrast, a fully-automated highway-based system that electronically squeezes more cars into the same space, could only double highway capacity, at best, and would be enormously expensive to implement.
Moller is confident that someday, hopefully in his lifetime, that he'll see his concepts take to the air. He knows it has to happen eventually, telling me that our airways are one of our most under-utilized natural resources. But he's realistic enough to know that if it doesn't happen in his lifetime, someone else will always pick up the challenge in the future, even if that future is two centuries off.
Not In It For the Money
What Moller wanted me to understand is that he's not in this business for the money. "As long as I am able to put bread on the table, and my wife doesn't divorce me for the investment I make in this technology."
I asked him how he keeps going financially all these years, during which he's not sold a single Skycar. Turns out that in addition to lining up investors over the years, he's also made a few million developing the industrial park in which his research headquarters is located, a park that now appears to be completely full or nearly so. He's now developing a new property north of Davis, which will include a man-made lake, over which he intends to test fly the M400, hopefully sometime this summer.
Winning War Games
If the private market for the Skycar is limited for the moment, it's potential military applications aren't. At least that's what Paul Moller is banking on. He explained that government think-tanks have run million dollar computer war game simulations using the Skycar in various roles; and the Skycar-equipped side always wins, an assertion apparently supported by a Colonel Harmon from a group called "Battle After Next." (Editor's note: a Google search failed to turn up any references to either the Colonel or the group, which doesn't mean they don't exist, of course).
In these war game scenarios, set in the Middle East and fought over an area 700 kilometers by 700 kilometers, the Skycar is used to deliver needed ammunition and supplies, a roll that has traditionally been carried out by helicopters and trucks.
Moller said, "They love the Skycar, but they're not going to give [me] a contract." Which is why he's looking for an established military contractor or a firm that works as a subcontractor to a large defense contractor. He hopes they can provide not only the manufacturing resources, but also open the doors to the Pentagon. He's developed a larger version of the Skycar dubbed the M600 which is designed to carry a standard military cargo container. In the lobby, he has a model of the vehicle decked out in camouflage that opens its side cargo door by remote control. He sees the Skycar as a lower-cost supplement to the Blackhawks that now serve the US military.
Noise Cancellation Needed
As you might imagine, eight rotary engines roaring at near maximum power will be deafening, not to mention the amount of air pollution they will generate. Moller said the nose problem is severe enough that you won't want to take off or land a Skycar in the typical residential neighborhood. Instead, he talked about letting the car operate like a EV on the ground so it can be driven to a skyport designed for these vehicles. His current prototype operates without mufflers, he explained, because the previous generation of engines weren't powerful enough to lift the vehicle if muffled, a problem he says will be solved with the new 160 hp Freedom engine. Then he'll be able to add mufflers and even -- maybe -- some form of noise cancellation technology.
As persuasive as Paul Moller is, by this time I got the distinct impression that he really was, more of less, "winging" it with me on some of these more thorny issues. As an EV World reader aptly pointed out, one of Moller's engines would be sufficient to propel a family of four on the ground. Imagine the amount of energy consumed and emissions generated by eight engines to propel that same family in a Skycar; though it would be interesting to compare the energy costs and emissions generated by moving those four people via commercial, short haul jet.
Still, I can't help feeling that while the idea was novel and exciting forty years ago when the planet had a few billion less people, it's a concept whose time may have already passed. It's sadly ironic too, because just as the technology -- both mechanically and electronically -- finally emerges to make Moller's dream practical, the reality of an over-populated, energy-hungry world may very well consign the Skycar-for-everyman notion to a footnote in history.
Of course, the Skycar may yet take to the air in military camouflage in the service of the country, and it may even make it into the hands of a wealthy few, but the dream of you and me buzzing to work in a Skycar is likely to remain in the realm of science fiction, probably where it belongs.
(1) A chartered private jetliner also was permitted to fly around America in the days immediately after 9/11 to pick up members of the extended Bin Laden family and fly them out of the country.
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