Paul Moller has spent the last 40 years trying to bring a flying car to market. We talked to him about his latest prototype, where you can get yours (hint: not in the U.S., and not anytime soon), and some of his brushes with death flying homemade, experimental aircraft.
Also, are flying cars a bad idea? We ask designer Donald Norman
FUTURIST: I'm hoping you might be able to indulge me on the M400, your latest prototype. My understanding of the principles by which the M400 flies is: two air-cooled, single-rooter engines swivel to provide vertical lift and forward acceleration. Is that about right? It also goes to 380 miles per hour?
Moller: Well, all of those numbers are a little confusing. I would say it uses multiple engines, which can vary from six to eight depending on the configuration. The idea is to get around a gearing arrangement; 40% of all helicopter failures are due to the gearing. Most of the actual accidents are related to transmission. You don't really want gearing in the vehicle. That means you have multiple engines. That's why we've designed our vehicle to know what's called a critical failure mode.
In other words, there's no single flying component. If you're going to sell something like this to the civilian market--whether I'm selling it or some future production market sells it to that market--it's got to be pretty fool-proof. You can't rely on something that has, historically, always been the center of failure, and that's gearbox transmission. So we have a bunch of independent engines. We have a minimum of six engines but typically eight engines, of course, all controlled by computers. So it's not like you to start eight engines, eight engines start, and you never know that the separate pieces are all parts of the design.
FUTURIST: I noticed in your ABC interview, you talk about how your working on a prototype that allows the driver to program in a destination and go directly to that destination without being involved in the process. When I spoke to designers, one of the things that seems the most scary and far-fetched is that you can't trust an average citizen to reliably control a flying car. They can barely control regular cars.
Moller: I absolutely agree with that. I mean, these kinds of vehicles will eventually be in the air. It's a question of when, not whether they will or won't. You'll have a situation where they are going to be flying fast. One of the beauties of evolving technology and transportation infrastructure, we end up going faster and have to spend less of our time doing things to get from point A to point B. Of course, our highway infrastructure is going just the opposite direction.
So, this vehicle is going to be fast. We've shown that it can cruise very comfortably at 200 miles per hour at sea level. But, as you've said, people can't handle highway speeds today. Highways are getting more and more overcrowded. I see more and more accidents myself, personally, on the freeways. So I think it's essential to find a system that cuts the human out of the loop 99% of the time.
FUTURIST: Do you think GPS and adaptive cruise control technologies have evolved to the point where they can be an integrated part of the system and really making the idea much more plausible and realistic?
Moller: Yes. But it's essential that we rely on more than simply one GPS system. You need an inertial coordinate system as well [which locates a moving body in space mathematically, based on acceleration and the physical forces acting upon said body]. The inertial coordinate system would be the escape system. In other words, say a big thunderstorm happened and you weren't able to access GPS. The inertial system would take over and get you back on the ground. But it would pull you out of the virtual highway in the sky, which is the vision NASA has put forward for how this would work. I'm sure you've heard about this idea of automating highways... The key is, you don't just rely on GPS. You don't just rely on an inertial system. You rely on transponders, on a whole bunch of other things, so you have multiple safety backups. This is not like the movie where everyone is crowded into a city with these kind of vehicles. The vehicle is intended for those trips of 50 miles or more.
FUTURIST: What would you say is the difference between the M400 and the previous prototypes? I know that you were selling these on eBay not too long ago.
Moller: We're calling that the Jetson but that's probably not where you directed your attention. That car didn't fit the role that you're envisioning here, which is the relief of [earth-bound] travel from point A to point B. The Jetson will come back into the market as a recreational utility vehicle because, with that vehicle, if you don't fly above the diameter of the vehicle, you're not under DOT control or FAA control. That means I can sell a product to you that can ride around, 10 to 12 feet above the ground, and you don't need a pilot's license. It's an interesting border patrol vehicle, rescue vehicle, farm accessory vehicle, or whatever. We're very close to bringing that onto the market. You probably won't hit it this year but we're already building a number of them. The difference between those two vehicles [the Jetson and the M400] the is that, the Jetson, by the nature of its design, probably would not have gotten past 100 miles her hour and would have burned a lot of fuel at that speed. It was a safe vehicle, had all those elements of safety that I referred to, but it didn't have the economics of operation in flight, nor the performance capabilities that people wanted, the capabilities that would really change the transportation paradigm.
FUTURIST: In terms of selling flying cars, I guess the thing I'm trying to get a handle on is, why is it so very, very hard?
Moller: I could spend a few years on that one. There are three components that make or break this technology: engines, electronics, and materials. For the engine, the most critical element is power. Once you reduce the diameter of the propulsion system, you go from a helicopter, to a fan system, you're moving less air. The problem is, the less air you move, the more power it takes to generate a certain kind of thrust. We've spent about $35 million over a period of 40 years developing the power plant for this project. The credit goes to Wankle. So engines are number one. That's held everything back. Every design you see that that we've flown, including half a dozen different varieties over the years starting in 1965, all focused on the engine. If I took a helicopter and made the diameter one half the diameter, I would have to immediately add 60% more power. I halve the diameter again, I have to add 60% more power again. The M400 has over 1000 horsepower.
FUTURIST: So power is an essential component. As we get into more discussion about hydrogen fuel cells and the role they'll play in the future GM line, bringing regular terrestrial vehicles, making them more energy efficient, do you see something like a hydrogen fuel playing a role in a future prototype?
Moller: I don't think you'll see a hydrogen fuel cell for ever. I think you'll see controlled fusion first. Because it's a weight-to-power issue. What you will see, and I gave a paper on this to the FCC conference, where I showed that what you probably end up with a hybrid vehicle is electively driven just to assist getting off the ground where you need a big sense of power and then drops out of the system for flight so then you don't have to have this huge amount of power just to take off and then not being able to use it effectively at high speeds. That's why you need 1000 horsepower. You can imagine if I use 1000 horsepower to go forward, my range would drop to one-third the range. Really there are specific where this is practical and above those speeds it just becomes a gas sucking machine. So that's the real point. We will see hybrid vehicles, and I'm sure it will be in my system in the next three years where we use electrical power from probably batteries, maybe super-capacitors if that science get better. We're about 50% away from a battery that would work for take off.
FUTURIST: That's still the number one barrier?
Moller: I think we have a machine right now that's practical. I don't need a battery, it would improve the economics if I had it. The other problem that you have is that you're trying to change the transportation paradigm. Who's going to join you in a program like this when the government can't tell you when it's going to be cooperating or when they can't give you changes in the FAA that will allow certain things? You've got a vehicle that's going to need to be certified. That's probably $100 million. There's just all those elements.
FUTURIST: The issue of finding the correct legislative environment, I know you have offices in South Korea, do you see yourself one day entering into a partnership with a country that's on the threshold of uniquely these uniquely twenty-first century possibilities? That's ready to leapfrog into a new infrastructure?
Moller: Funny you should mention that because I just came back from giving a talk in Dubai. There's a huge enthusiasm. I went to Dubai to talk about entrepreneurship and innovation. The majority of the money that's been invested in my company has been from countries other than the United States. The majority of my stockholders are American because they aren't big stockholders. But my big stockholders are from other countries.
FUTURIST: So in answer to that old question, where's my flying car, the answer in the next 20 years may be "go to Dubai?"
Moller: It's true. The people in Dubai are building these Palm Islands, which I'm sure you're well aware of. They say, well, how do we get around on these things? We have the problem of getting from the island to land. We have boats but boats aren't really convenient. So, they're open to the idea more so than in America. But what is the old saying? You're always a stranger in your own land? But getting back into the three components, after engines, we've spent a similar amount of money, maybe $20 million on artificial intelligence. We build our own computers, our own software, everything else. It's a long process. The algorithms have to be very specific for the particular job. The third component, of course, is modern materials. The development of new materials like carbon fiber and new materials in fan design, to help us make our fans more efficient, reliable, and bulletproof--these are a factor as well. Those are three factors, engines, electronics, and materials.
FUTURIST: Looking at the second factor. I know that the problem with AI is that it's really great for figuring the answers to numerical riddles working with numbers that can have two different values, but trying to build something that processes binary code to understand something that's going on in an actual physical space, that's where you're overwhelming the system with data that you yourself haven't totally processed yet.
Moller: Certainly that's a big a piece of the problem. The other is the reliability of the hardware when you put it all together. Even triple redundancy just isn't safe enough.
FUTURIST: But as the computer becomes a bigger part of the flight process, essentially freeing the pilot from having to make decisions, you envision the act of flying becoming not so much like an act of driving but a straightforward computer interface but happening at 380 miles per hour above the surface of the earth.
FUTURIST: Would you say that's the biggest difference between what you can work with now and what you were working with 40 years ago?
Moller: Right. But if I had what I have today 40 years ago? I wouldn't have known where to put it.
FUTURIST: Thinking of the last 40 years of working on this and creating this dream out of nothing, prior to you, there was no sense that people could actually do this, except in the government. This is the public manifestation of a very old dream. What was your best moment on this journey?
Moller: The best, it always relates to the first flight, when we started off with the xm2 in 1965, I started this off with some of students. Just getting in that vehicle and hovering, one foot off the ground, separating yourself off the ground by any means, in a vehicle, is exciting. I would say the next most exciting thing, it's hard to believe it wasn't decades later, it was 1969, it was a successful flight, I was up quite high, but I actually was aware of the fact I could die very easily. There were lots of reasons why, if the craft crashed, I would not have survived. This is an experimental aircraft. We are underfinanced always. I did the testing myself. It was terrifying. If a ten cent transistor had burnt out on the signal component system, I would probably have died. I suppose the best moment was after I completed the flight, I said to myself, I'm going to live. It was the best sensation I think I've ever had.
FUTURIST: That makes sense.
About the author: Patrick Tucker is the Senior Editor of THE FUTURIST and the director of communications for the World Future Society.