Meet George Jetson

After 50 years, is Paul Moller’s quest to create the world’s first flying car about to come true? Someone may be betting nearly $500 million that it will.

Photographs by Max Whittaker

(page 1 of 4)

I It’s round, of course, and painted a shiny Reagan-era blue. Eight circular rotary engines ring
the fiberglass body, and if they were still working, they would blast it straight up off the ground with a buzzing noise like a locust invasion. In the plastic-bubble-covered cockpit, there’s a bank of metal toggle switches and a seat made of gray pleather. The M200X, as it’s called, rests on dainty tires about 10 feet from Moller’s “Skycar,” a more recent take on this eccentric engineer’s lifelong compulsion to create cars that fly.

The Skycar is cherry red and resembles a mash-up between Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder and X-wing fighter. It’s a three-wheeled contraption, also with a bubble cockpit, a pointed nose like a missile and a joystick control that looks like it was salvaged from an old Atari. Nevertheless, it’s sexy and sleek, like something that sprang from a comic book, designed to be piloted by a square-jawed superhero on urgent business. Pop open its hatch door, slip onto the velour bucket seats and let the adventures begin.

Moller, a former UC Davis aeronautical and mechanical engineering professor with cautious blue eyes, a well-trimmed Van Dyke beard and a deeply embedded thrill-seeking streak, has flown both of these revolutionary vehicles—in the field behind this building, at the UC Davis airport and on his almond farm in Dixon. He says it feels like being on a magic carpet.

Someday soon, he hopes you’ll be piloting one, too. He has a dream where they roll off the assembly line and into the hands of consumers, like Toyotas or the BMW 540i he currently drives.

No, he’s not crazy. Just short on cash.

Moller in his George Jetson-esque M200X in his factory’s backyard.It turns out that making an aircraft that flies both vertically and horizontally (a VTOL, or vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, as it’s known in aviation circles) is expensive. Very expensive. Even though Moller has invested more than $10 million of his own cash over the years, he says that money is the only thing holding him back from mass-producing working Skycars.

“I’m out grubbing for money everywhere rather than doing the technical things,” says the 76-year-old, sounding frustrated, weary and a bit disillusioned. “Money, it’s always money.”

He has hustled and bumped through five decades of research, dumping every dime he could scrounge—more than $100 million, he estimates—into this flight of fantasy. Currently, he doesn’t even have funds to keep his prototypes in the air, and says it would cost $5 million just to get his venture restarted.

But his fortunes, both literally and figuratively, may be about to change.

Recently, Moller was offered nearly a half a billion dollars to start up production once again. A consortium of investors headed by a Chinese-American businessman and art collector named John Gong, who also harbors a personal passion for flying, has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Moller for an initial imprest of $80 million and a total investment of $480 million, including a Chinese plant to produce the flying cars.

If that money comes through, it may be Moller’s last chance for a triumphant final voyage on his lifelong mission. He says his cars could be flying in less than two years in the air over Harbin, an inland port city of over 10 million in Northeast China where his investors want to build a factory. Gong, who discovered Moller’s company on the Internet and recently visited him in Davis, hopes it could be sooner and is working hard to get the necessary approvals from 46 different departments of the Chinese government in the next few months. 

“If you look at the humble building, you will say, ‘My God, he probably only can do a bicycle type of deal,” admits Gong of Moller’s current space. But, he adds, “I looked at the design and I looked at the drawing and I looked at the machine he currently has, then I believed him. The deal is going forward.”

* * * *

For more than 50 years, Moller has worked ceaselessly to build the world’s first commercially produced, consumer-oriented flying car for the masses. One that could rise up out of your driveway, zip over terrain and traffic jams at speeds up to 400 miles per hour (though 200 mph will likely be cruising speed), and transport the average Joe with the same nonchalance as an earth-bound car does today, like George Jetson heading off to make sprockets in the morning.

Moller says that Skycars would function on new, three-dimensional highways in the air, be safely controlled by computers, but also still able to drive down the street on their wheels to the grocery store when necessary. Unlike helicopters and airplanes, which are expensive to maintain and difficult to operate, anyone could handle a Skycar with its simple computerized controls. Think of Bruce Willis piloting his air taxi in The Fifth Element, or Harrison Ford’s “spinner” in Blade Runner. Sound crazy? Just in April, The Wall Street Journal opined that, “by 2025, fully autonomous vehicles might hit the streets in meaningful numbers.” The only difference is, Moller believes they will be floating above the streets instead.

 An M200X test flight“I’ve always had this personal desire to build something that you and I could fly in,” he says of his relentless pursuit, sounding like a 21st-century Henry Ford. “Something practical.”

Working out of his garage at first, and later a low-rise faded facility with retro diagonal wood planks for siding in a research park just off I-80, Moller has built (and flown) a half dozen of these volantors, as he generically calls them, over the years. Yes, they all actually can fly. One saucer has been in the air more than 200 times. The vehicles have earned him investors and worldwide attention—including a spot in Esquire’s 2003 “Genius Issue,” a 2005 profile on 60 Minutes, and the covers of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Forbes FYI and The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

They’ve also won him professional admiration and respect.

Dennis Bushnell, the chief scientist of the NASA Langley Research Center who has followed Moller’s work, says he considers him to be an “early pioneer,” in this new field of aviation, and an “experienced, talented and inventive engineer.”

“He’s regarded very highly [by the scientific community],” adds Case van Dam, Chair of UC Davis’ Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “[Aeronautics] people really like his ideas. The whole idea of a small vehicle that can take off and land vertically is very viable, and I think Paul’s work and other people’s work shows that.”