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Some people are putting their money on just this concept of an auto/aircraft hybrid. The idea has even been incorporated into the name of at least one company, Roadable Aircraft International of Camarillo, CA. Roadable, which is designing an aircar-type drone for the Navy, is developing a civilian VTOL-named, with a nod to the Wright brothers, The Flyer-that it claims will be as roadworthy as any conventional automobile.

Nicholas L. Geranio, Roadable’s vice president for product development, says The Flyer will be capable of traveling as fast as 135 kilometers per hour on the ground and 400 kilometers per hour through the air. Geranio says the company has tested two prototypes and is now working on a model for FAA certification. Once Roadable receives FAA certification-which Geranio hopes will happen by late 2006-the company expects to sell the vehicle at an initial price of $300,000 to $400,000 Roadable has plans to market a $100,000 kit version of The Flyer, minus the engines-a jet turbine engine for flight, a piston engine for ground travel- by the end of 2004.

The seductive vision of personal flight for everyone has its skeptics. Among them is R. John Hansman, director of the MIT-based International Center for Air Transportation. VTOL aircraft are difficult to design, Hansman says, because they must lift all their weight with vertical thrust before they can attain forward flight and stay in the air with lift. “Because weight is such a critical consideration, it’s hard to design a vehicle that is as crashworthy as a traditional car,” he says. He is especially doubtful about aircars of the hybrid type. “You can design a good airplane, or you can design a good car,” he says. “When you try to do both, you inevitably compromise somewhere, so you have a suboptimal car and a suboptimal airplane.”

Hansman thinks there could be greater possibilities for small aircraft that achieve lift quickly and can take off, and land, on the flat roofs of large buildings. But of course, that takes us back to the question of whether large numbers of small aircraft would ever be allowed to fly in cities.

While he’s dubious about the near-term prospect of millions of Americans flitting through the air in their own flying machines, Hansman is careful not to deny the possibility. He just thinks that if that day does arrive, it will not be for a long time, in part because it will be quite a while before people will be willing to trust their lives to fully automated aircraft. Nevertheless, Paul Moller and others in this growing sector of aeronautics agree with Dennis Bushnell that aircars are the inevitable next step in personal transportation.

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