Paul Moller dreams of people getting around in flying cars.
But it’s not easy to pursue a dream that many consider merely the stuff of science fiction — even if you’ve devoted decades of thought and millions of dollars to the effort, as the 70-year-old Moller has.
Twenty years ago, the former engineering professor from the University of California at Davis created Moller International to make flying cars — but the company has never put a flying vehicle into production. Until now.
Moller International’s first product, the two-seat M200G, is a scaled-down version of Moller's dream. The specs: It hovers about 10 feet off the ground, cruises at 50 mph (80 kilometers per hour) — and looks like a flying saucer. The company compares it to the space car in “The Jetsons,” a futuristic cartoon from the 1960s. And it carries a price tag of $90,000.
It's not quite what Moller set out to make. His true goal is his four-passenger dreammobile called the Skycar, which could fly hundreds of feet above gridlocked highways and zoom as fast as 375 mph (600 kilometers per hour).
But sky-high challenges keep the Skycar grounded: Technically speaking, its engines just can't provide enough lift for four people. On the regulatory front, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to provide aircraft-safety certification (something that Moller says would not be necessary for the M200G). And the Skycar's price tag, at least at first, would start at around $1 million — which is way steep for the average car shopper.
Over the years, Moller has been selling motorcycle mufflers and real estate to fund his flying-vehicle venture. So far, Moller International has made nada on its flying-car inventions, but Moller is hoping the M200G will change that.
Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology analyst, says selling some of the spendy saucers to passionate hobbyists could keep Moller’s Skycar dreams alive.
“If he really worked out the production details, it could keep his company going,” he said. “And if he does it right with the profits, he can keep it going with the Skycar.”
Moller expects to crank out about 450 of the M200Gs in the next three years. But interest, and investors, mostly comes from outside the United States — namely Dubai, a wealthy Middle Eastern country known for its modern skyline, its extravagant building projects and its allure for the super-rich.
Moller isn’t dismayed by the lack of interest at home. After all, he said, the Wright Brothers also struggled to sell their first flying machines in America a century ago.
“They went to Europe to sell it,” he said. “We are the most inventive country, but we don’t always follow up on our inventions.”
Moller's critics, meanwhile, are more than just wary of Moller’s works in progress. They say his inventions are unlikely to leave the realm of science fiction.
“The things he makes are generally very pretty,” said roboticist Daniel Wilson, author of “Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.”
“Sadly, the only way they will fly is in people’s imaginations and in the investors’ minds that he’s duped,” Wilson said.
The same charge came from the Securities and Exchange Commission a few years back. The SEC accused the company and Moller of exaggerating the sales projections for the Skycar. He agreed to pay a civil penalty of $50,000 in 2003.
Skeptics have voiced concern that even at $90,000, the M200G is just too expensive for the market. They've also raised questions about fuel efficiency, noise pollution — and where they will put their groceries.
Critics or not, Moller is one of the longest-standing advocates of flying cars — and the industry's best-known public face. Aerospace engineers, though, generally use the term “personal air vehicle” instead of “flying car.”
“‘Flying car’ implies it will replace anybody’s car,” said Carl Dietrich, chief executive officer of Terrafugia, which is developing the Transition, a personal aircraft designed to travel on skyways and highways. “‘Flying car’ brings out a lot of connotations and ‘The Jetsons.’”
Moller International knows the tribulations of trying to make an innovation mainstream. Its Web site even quotes the oft-cited three stages of gaining public acceptance for new technology. The innovation is first ridiculed by “those ignorant of its potential.” Then, it is “subverted by those threatened by its potential.” Finally, the technology is considered “self-evident.”
The market’s wariness of Moller’s vision has forced him, like many inventors, to scale back the grand dream, Saffo said.
“There’s a reason people didn’t invest in the Skycar: It wasn’t going to be successful in any economically reasonable time frame,” he said.
But Moller’s vision remains on the horizon — even though the Skycar may not.
Once flying cars hit the market, Moller said he expects the concept to take “10 to 15 years to get big because of penetration rate. Then we’ll sell more than 10 million a year.”
“It’s going to be a long time for it to change the way we live.”