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Saturday, August 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Answer to gridlock may be up in air: Boeing, NASA work on flying car
By Allison Linn
It's a frustrated commuter's escapist fantasy: literally lifting your car out of a clogged highway and soaring through the skies, landing just in time to motor into your driveway.
Researchers stress the ultimate dream an affordable, easy-to-use vehicle that could allow people to fly 200 miles to a meeting and also drive 15 miles to the mall is decades away.
But engineers at Boeing, NASA and elsewhere say the basis for a flying car is there. People have been building, or trying to build, them for decades.
Those ideas have generally required both a lot of money and the skills of a trained pilot. And melding cars and planes hasn't always been successful.
"When you try to combine them you get the worst of both worlds: a very heavy, slow, expensive vehicle that's hard to use," said Mark Moore, who heads the personal air-vehicle division of the vehicle-systems program at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Within five years, NASA researchers hope to develop technology for a small airplane that can fly out of regional airports, costs less than $100,000, is as quiet as a motorcycle and as simple to operate as a car. Although it wouldn't have road-driving capabilities, it would give regular people the ability to fly short distances.
In 10 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hopes to have technology for going door-to-door. These still wouldn't be flying cars but small planes that can drive very short distances on side streets after landing at a nearby airport.
In 15 years, researchers hope to have the technology for larger vehicles, seating as many as four passengers, and the ability to make vertical takeoffs.
It will probably take years after these technologies are developed before the vehicles are on the market. Moore says it will take about 25 years to get to anything "remotely 'Jetsons'-like,' " a reference to the futuristic TV cartoon series that fed many flying-car fantasies.
Lynne Wenberg, senior manager on the project, said the goal is to make a flying car that costs the same as a luxury vehicle and is quiet, fuel-efficient and easy to fly and maintain.
Boeing is especially interested in the broader problem of figuring out how to police the airways and prevent pandemonium if thousands of flying cars enter the skies. No one wants to be cut off, tailgated or buzzed a little too closely by a student driver at 1,000 feet.
"The neat, gee-whiz part [is] thinking about what would the vehicle itself look like, but we're trying to think through all the ramifications of what would it take to deploy a fleet of these," said Dick Paul, a vice president with Phantom Works, Boeing's research arm.
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