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If you live in any major urban area, chances are you know the frustration of long commutes, gridlock, and having to factor in extra time to get nearly anywhere. You've probably even sat on the freeway wishing your car could rise up and simply fly over the miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Paul S. Moller, PhD and founder of the Aeronautical Engineering program at UC Davis, has spent 40 years doing something about it. He's built a functioning flying car.
Moller's M400 Skycar might be a little pricey at $3.5 to $5 million US Dollars (USD) a pop when the FAA initially approves it for urban use, but don't let that discourage you. Costs are expected to come down to a reasonable $60 to 80 thousand USD as demand increases.
The Skycar can hum along at 350 mph (about 563 kph) getting 28 miles (about 45 km) to the gallon. It is a personal Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) vehicle that can cut an hour's commute to just a couple of minutes. It can operate on gasoline, diesel or alcohol, making it versatile and adaptable to whatever fuel source is readily available, and it is a low-pollution vehicle. The rotary engines are small, light and efficient, with few moving parts resulting in little maintenance. Thrusters rotate downwards for vertical liftoff, then plane for forward or backward thrust. All systems are redundant for maximum safety, including hydraulics, computer systems and engines. What's more, this vehicle can fit in a single-car garage or standard parking space designed for any vehicle.
But there are some drawbacks. With three wheels, the Skycar is street legal but intended for short road jaunts under 35 mph (about 56 kph). The vehicle produces significant noise on takeoff and landing, making it necessary to use vertiports — designated areas for personal VTOL craft to land and take off. The idea is that the owner would drive to a nearby vertiport, then take off for work. The vehicle would travel to another vertiport close to the destination point, then drive to the actual destination. Conversely, large companies might build their own rooftop vertiports, allowing employees to land and park. Incentive would be high for such a construction, as a vertiport does not require much more than a small, flat, hard surface and, in the example, access to a parking or storage structure.
The Skycar will require the driver to get a "powered lift" pilot's license in the FAA "power lift normal" category. That said, it has only two simple controls that the pilot uses to tell the highly advanced computer system what maneuvers he or she wishes to make. The computer does the actual flying, and this autopilot system is backed by redundancies to ensure safety.
The FAA is purportedly developing a system to control personal flight craft similar to the way they control public aircraft. This would avoid the accidents that might seem inevitable if people were personally piloting through the skies to work. Instead, the pilot lays in a course and the FAA comes back to the Skycar's computerized system with the flight plan it will follow to reach its destination.
In later generations, Moller envisions air taxis without drivers that simply respond to dispatch calls and take passengers where they want to go via a simple interface. In these later generations, a pilot's license will not be required.
A personal VTOL craft was thought to be impossible to create because of inherent problems in the required physics for such a vehicle. This makes the Skycar unique among a small host of proposed flying cars, many of which require runways and fly more like fixed wing aircraft than helicopters. As design improves to reduce engine noise on takeoff and landing, vertiports may not be necessary and spontaneous liftoff and landing in urban areas could be allowed.
There are so many economical and environmental advantages to flying cars of this kind that it is almost impossible to overstate the impact an affordable, safe model could have, especially in urban areas. Much of the pollution generated by traffic comes from cars idling or running at low speeds. Skycars would spend most of their travel time at high speeds, burning much cleaner. They would alleviate congestion and require no costly infrastructure. Even a neighborhood field could serve as a designated vertiport. They also run on alternate fuel sources, such as clean-burning alcohol.
Flying cars would allow families to live where they want, further from urban work centers in more affordable areas, including rural settings. Yet the Skycar would not require new roads or highway systems to pave over land. The environment would be preserved. Current highway systems would also eventually see less wear and tear, saving money on repairing infrastructure. Ride sharing would also be feasible since any destination would be mere minutes away, and after a long day's work, no one would have to drive. This vehicle opens the door to employment in other states as well, while a commute of even an hour can be well spent working, while the autopilot takes the passenger to his or her destination. Traffic accidents would decrease proportionately, as would the potential for accidents from drunk driving or fatigue.
The economy would also benefit from a flying car like the Skycar. Shopping centers, restaurants and businesses of all kinds would enjoy non-local traffic, as traveling even 100 miles (161 km) for dinner would be a mere 17 minute trip. Many lives would conceivably be saved as hospitals would be within close reach. Specialized Skycars will likely be used for emergency and military applications as well.