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.

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In May of 1989, Paul Moller, then 52, had his most successful test flight ever, but one that could have been his last.

It was the day of his third wedding anniversary to his third wife, Rosa, (he and Vicki divorced in 1985). Wearing a blue fireproof suit, he kissed her, then hopped into the newly revamped M200X, using its joystick control to raise the craft to 60 feet above the Davis factory—the highest public flight to date—for a little more than two minutes while a crowd of international press once again snapped pictures and filmed below him.

Jennifer, there with Vicki, remembers thinking, “Wow, this is great. This is a perfect flight.”

But Moller knew different. This was not the flying car that was going to be in every American driveway. This craft had engineering problems—the blades of its engines, rotating at near-supersonic speeds, had the tendency to break off mid-flight, as Moller had learned in ground tests when one flew off just a foot away from the head of an employee. They could whip free like deadly metal missiles in unpredictable directions—toward the pilot, maybe, or those reporters and family on the ground.  But Moller wanted the flight for authenticity reasons—he needed more money to get to the next level and had to prove to investors and critics that he was on a viable track.Paul Moller at Moller International headquarters in Davis.

“I was not comfortable during the flight but it was a credibility issue. I really needed to fly it,” he says. “I remember I did a two-minute flight and then I turned around, and as I was going back to land I said to myself, ‘I’m going to live.’ Because in the back of my mind I knew that the fan blade could go at any time. It was a moment that I won’t forget. It was worth the flight, but I didn’t want to ever do that again, not with that kind of risk.”

The crowd was impressed, and Moller was on a roll. Over the next decade, he received military and government contracts for an unmanned flying robot called the Aerobot that he created from the same technology. Caltrans purchased them to examine bridges. Cash was flowing, he says, and he leapfrogged past the M200 technology to begin on the Skycar.

“I was raising a lot of money at the time very easily,” he recalls, standing in front of a display case of miniature replicas of his crafts. Inside each is a tableau of plastic dolls—some of the men in tuxedos, a few of the women in sparkly dresses fashionable in the Discojet days. “I’m always believing that I’m going to be able to do the next phase, and if the funds aren’t there, you end up shortchanging the phase you are in.” Moller began taking preorders for the Skycar, relegating the M200 to a service vehicle to be used for crop spraying or other workhorse tasks. Investors poured millions in, many wealthy patrons from foreign countries like Oman, but also more family and friends. Over the years, Jeanne invested $76,000 in the Skycar.

Along with the money came good press coverage from outlets as diverse as People Magazine and The New York Times. The King of Pop even called in the early ’90s to inquire about purchasing a Skycar for himself. Moller was walking through the factory with a reporter from The Economist when “over the loudspeaker comes, ‘Michael Jackson’s on the telephone,’ ” he recalls. “It’s sort of funny because he has that squeaky voice.” But despite Jackson’s interest, Moller said he never seriously considered selling one to him. “We just played along with it, but we didn’t push it seriously,” he says. “The worst conceivable thing we could imagine at the height of his popularity was to have Michael Jackson killed in one of our Skycars.”

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When Moller finally had a serious crash, it wasn’t the Skycar that went down. It was his reputation. Moller had been selling stock privately through the Internet and other avenues since at least 1997 and raised $5.1 million from more than 500 investors, according the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In 2001, the company registered with the SEC to sell stock. In 2002, its stock began trading over the counter and reached more than $5 a share. That year, he also piloted the first successful public test flight of the Skycar at a stockholders meeting in Davis. But in 2003, Federal regulators accused Moller of making false and misleading statements to his private investors about the Skycar and the value of patents held by the company, and of including some of that information in the company’s paperwork to the SEC. Moller eventually settled the SEC’s civil suit by paying a $50,000 fine without admitting to any wrongdoing.

“If you see some of the stuff on the Internet because of the SEC thing, you might believe I’m a crook,” he says. “I know better than that. I think most people that know me know better than that.”

But the damage was done–popular trust in Moller and his invention evaporated overnight. Internet searches on his company turned up charges of fraud rather than successful flights, a problem that still dogs him today.

“Some people say it’s a scam. I don’t think it’s a scam,” says Clark S. Lindsey—who has followed the Skycar saga for years while editing a science website called hobbyspace.com—of the charges. “I think he’s sacrificed his life for this. If it’s a scam, it’s on himself.”

Moller’s newest potential investor John Gong agrees. “He is a good guy. He is a scholar and a gentleman,” he says. “He is honest.”

But the stock price tanked, trading today at 20 to 30 cents a share. It became impossible to raise the money he needed, and despite retaining core supporters, the incident has been hard to shake.

“It’s like the sheriff coming into your house and asking your husband how long he’s been beating you,” says Bruce Calkins, Moller International’s general manager who helped take it public. “The accusation itself is so weighty, so onerous that you can’t get rid of it. Once it’s been said, once it’s been published, there’s nothing you can do to convince people that there isn’t something behind it.”

If Moller can be faulted for anything, he says, it’s his unwavering enthusiasm. Whether it’s racing go-karts or creating the Skycar, Moller is certain he can do it and isn’t shy about saying it. But Moller’s own convictions may have been his undoing. The SEC “thought he was making false promises, but he was merely being optimistic and trying to describe the dream and where he thinks he could go,” says his ex-wife Jeanne LaTorre. “He’s no flim-flam man.”

“He always forgets to emphasize the ‘Oh, by the way, I can do this tomorrow if I have the money,’ ” when speaking to investors or the media, adds Calkins. “He forgets the ‘if I have the money’ [part]. It’s a persistent problem. You’ve got to have money in your hand before you can tell someone a schedule.”

For Moller’s part, he says that the past 10 years since the SEC action have been the toughest he’s faced. “I’ve been in my Job period since 2002,” he says, strain creeping into his voice as he refers to the biblical story of a righteous man whose faith is tested by adversity. “I can promise you it’s been the biggest struggle of my life just keeping things together with this extended period of inactivity.” 

Instead of testing new technologies, he spends most days in his cluttered office. The walls are covered with renderings and photographs of test flights. Notably, his desk is missing a computer. He doesn’t use one, nor does he use e-mail. Any e-mails sent to his office are printed and handed to him. He doesn’t use a cell phone either, except for when he travels. Instead, he simply has several calculators and a landline phone on his desk.

But he adds that spending less time on the Skycar has helped him delve deeper into other pursuits like alternative health. Reference books and journals from around the world line his shelves. Every day, he takes more than 75 pills to improve his health and extend his life, including ribonucleic acid (RNA) supplements and a self-created allergy remedy that combines vitamin C, bioflavonoids and pantothenic acid. If looks are any proof, his research has paid off—he’s easily mistaken for a man in his 50s and Jennifer Moller jokes that he is “reverse aging” like some sort of pill-popping Dorian Gray. He even had a racquetball court built into his headquarters and plays regularly. He matter-of-factly says that he “certainly” expects to live past 100, adding, “I would probably be happy with 130.”

He’s also embraced a new-age side and considers American spiritualist Edgar Cayce to be his “guru.” He even has a paper cutout of the lost continent of Atlantis (which Cayce taught about) tacked just off the coast of Florida on a world map on his wall.

“I’ve filled out my spiritual vision of where I’ve been, where I’m going,” he says of how he has spent his time these past few years. “I don’t know if the end product of my life is going to be my technology.”

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While the last decade has been slow for Moller, it’s been an era of rapid development for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft overall. If nothing else, it has moved Moller closer to the success of building a respected legacy if not a workable Skycar—a man no crazier than the Wright brothers must have seemed jumping off sand dunes in their gliders at Kitty Hawk. It’s too soon to tell if he will be considered a pioneer, as NASA’s Bushnell suggests. But it’s pretty clear that the technology now exists for mass-produced VTOLs, with more companies entering this race with their own fantastical flying contraptions.

There is the Israel-based UrbanAero, which is developing the X-Hawk vehicle that carries 11 people. The Dutch PAL-V flying car completed a maiden voyage last year. Its CEO Robert Dingemanse isn’t shy about billing it as the “first viable flying car ever,” and expects to deliver it in 2015. Here in the U.S., Massachusetts-based Terrafugia took its “roadable aircraft” to air shows in 2012 and says it has more than 100 preorders for the $279,000 vehicle.

“This type of vehicle, whether you call it a flying car or a roadable aircraft, whether it’s Moller’s or other types, there has never been a commercial success. It just hasn’t happened, so people are skeptical,” says Terrafugia executive Richard Gersh. “If this were easy, someone would have done it, so clearly it’s not easy.”

But John Gong, who holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from George Mason University, says Moller’s technology is the best he’s seen, and the design with the widest potential for consumer use. He also knows that time is running out for Moller—supplements can’t keep him alive forever.

 “I see the urgency to either make this one go big or stay the size it is for a long, long time,” says Gong.

NASA’s Bushnell adds that the necessary highway-in-the-sky system is finally in the works. The FAA has loosened its rules for lightweight crafts like Moller’s and it is implementing an update and expansion of its aging air traffic control system that would allow for managing more types and quantities of flying vehicles.

Computer systems that can drive a car without human help—like the Google car—already exist, with technology that translates to the sky. In other countries, like China, which lack roads in many rural areas, the Skycar might be a plausible alternative to building roads—the same way some developing countries skipped landline telephones and went straight to cells. Even in bustling Chinese cities, congestion and overcrowding are making road travel difficult. In 2010, a traffic jam on a major highway near Beijing lasted 10 days, with some drivers moving only a half-mile each day. That makes a Skycar sound pretty good. Any VTOL will most certainly be for military and emergency use at first, and be costly, but, as Gong points out, “there are millionaires and billionaires, and they always want to have something that can take off from the backyard.”

Gong says he shares Moller’s vision of a mass produced Skycar. If the money comes through, Moller says the investment group anticipates production of 80,000 Skycars by 2016. He’s looking forward to test-piloting the next model, a 600 horsepower two-seater with wings that fold and a maximum speed of about 330 miles per hour in the air. Gong, who hopes to see one parked in his own backyard as a replacement for the helicopter his wife won’t allow, says he’s “positive” that the deal will happen: “We’re going to make the dream come true.”

Whether it does or not, though, quitting certainly won’t be an option for Moller, especially since he hopes to have another 50-plus years to fill.

“What does stop mean?” he asks. “I don’t know what I’d do if I stopped.” S