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But if limited to airplanes, this idea has a couple of obvious flaws. First of all, it’s questionable whether many people would want to buy and maintain an airplane. And even if they did, they’d still have to use an automobile to get to and from airports-hardly the ideal solution to our transportation problems.

Moller has long insisted that the answer to this dilemma is aircars that could operate completely free of airports. SATS would have to be greatly expanded to include VTOL’s departing and landing at a multiplicity of locations far removed from traditional landing strips. Will that be done? In fact, says NASA’s Bushnell, “The SATS vision has always included that as an end point.” He adds, though, that until the infrastructure for aircar guidance has been completed, we will see a transition period in which the vehicles will have to be piloted by the people flying them during the takeoff and landing portions of the flight.

An infrastructure that supports aircars won’t be much use if there are no aircars to buy. But such flying vehicles could become available in the not too distant future.

One company that appears close to bringing an aircar to market is Moller’s enterprise, Moller International in Davis, CA, which has developed a VTOL vehicle called the Skycar. A four-passenger Skycar, dubbed the M400, is undergoing extensive flight testing aimed at getting FAA certification. The company says the M400 will initially cost just under $1 million, but as manufacturing volume ramps up, the price will come down to $40,000 to $60,000-comparable to a mid-range luxury automobile.  The company hopes to have the million-dollar version on the market by mid-2006.

The Skycar looks a bit like a small fighter jet with stubby wings. It is powered by eight rotary engines, similar to the ones used in some Mazda sports cars. Two of these engines, which turn fan blades to produce thrust, are mounted in each of four large pods, called nacelles, at the front and back of the fuselage. The nacelles tilt downward for takeoff and landing and turn horizontally for level flight. These engines will enable the Skycar to cruise at 480 kilometers per hour at a height of 9 kilometers (though so far it has been tested only in low-altitude flights). The Skycar is designed to keep flying if one or more engines fail, as long as they are in different nacelles. In the event of multiple engine failures-which could happen from, say, flying into a flock of birds-two ballistically ejected parachutes will carry the vehicle gently to the ground.

The Skycar does have one shortcoming that could put it in a bind: it’s mostly sky and a lot less car. Although it can taxi around, the vehicle is not meant to be driven on the ground for more than a few kilometers. Moller is counting on aircars being able to operate to and from a variety of urban spaces, such the tops of buildings, making it unnecessary for them to be driven any appreciable distance on the ground.

NASA’s Bushnell, however, believes it is unlikely that the FAA or municipal governments will allow swarms of personal aircraft to be buzzing around highly built-up areas. Lots of people are therefore going to continue traveling in and out of big cities-and they’ll most likely have to do so on roads. Thus, says Bushnell, for aircars to be mass-market vehicles, they will have to operate just as efficiently on the ground as in the air.

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