Cars that fly? It's not pie in the sky

Sunday, July 24, 2005
By CHALLEN STEPHENS
Times Staff Writer challens@htimes.com

Entrepreneur says much of technology already exists here

A century ago, to a nation still impressed by the Pony Express, the SUV may have been a strange and unlikely prediction. Whole families packed in shiny metal containers, hurtling side by side at speeds of 70 and 80 mph, weaving and wheeling over paved roadways without collision.

But to hear Norris Luce tell it, the bustling skies of tomorrow are no less likely than the six-lane interstates of today.

In fact, to hear Luce tell it, the future is certain: Our skies will teem with flying cars.

Within a generation, he predicts a web of skyways and a central computer that guides a melange of soaring cars along invisible roads.

For Luce, the future begins in a workshop at the back of his Huntsville office.

For more than 20 years, he's been pursuing this dream. At Macro Industries, in an unassuming strip of offices off University Drive, Luce can show you two working models of what he long ago named SkyRider. Four fans, or what he calls propulsers, replace four wheels. The fans face downward for vertical lift and swivel to supply enough forward thrust to reach 300 knots.

"Fifty years from now, vehicles like this will be common in garages," Luce predicts. "Fifty years from now, most people will not be driving in cars that touch the ground."

In fact, he sees the first flying cars soaring overhead with regularity in 20 years, if not 10.

" 'The Jetsons,' " quips engineer David Atchison, program manager for SkyRider. "The ground will be more for cargo."

Does that mean big rigs will still haul lumber and rocket fuel and bottled beer over ground?

"I'm not even sure of that," Luce counters.

SkyRiders in driveways

He imagines that shipping and public transportation will also abandon the wheel in the next few decades. However, there he foresees hovering technology used to provide smooth rides a small distance above existing roads. But that's levitation, not flight, and that's not his goal.

His goal is a SkyRider parked in the driveway, a car that flies straight to the office, stops by grandmom's and flies home again.

The operator will say the destination, such as "home," and the computer will navigate. Already, according to a recent report on CBS News, NASA is working on a computer system, called Highway in the Sky, that could help regulate the aerial traffic by providing the virtual equivalent of the double-yellow line.

"What a vehicle like this will do is extend the suburbs," Luce says.

Soon, he says, folks may live in Huntsville and work an hour away in Atlanta. And with an intelligent guidance system, they can catch up on work during the commute.

Luce is president and co-founder of Macro, which has seven employees. The company pays the bills with technological advances such as a lightweight, silicon-based composite for military vehicles. But that composite would also form the shell of SkyRider, which four employees work on when time allows.

Many chasing goal

Luce is far from alone in his goal. There are scores of individuals and companies pursuing ideas and plans for flying cars, from personal helicopter cars to hovercrafts, from jetpacks to cars with collapsible wings.

Of these, Luce says only one has come as far as Macro in actual design and production.

That's Moller International in Davis, Cal., which built a full-scale prototype called the M400 SkyCar. According to the company's Web site, eager fans can put down a deposit on the first production models. The first 100 SkyCars are set to sell for about $1 million each.

But that's not the proletariat price tag Luce envisions.

He sees the sky filled with interweaving lanes of SkyRiders, as cars all over the globe are steadily replaced by personal crafts that can fly faster than a Cessna.

For that to happen, prices will have to fall as fast they did on cell phones and SUVs. In the end, he imagines SkyRiders will cost little more than a sports car.

And they shouldn't cost much more to maintain and operate than a car. In 50 years, Luce says, potholes and flat tires will have gone the way of the hitching post.

Investors wanted

Luce, who's lived here since 1984, says the technology already exists, and much of it exists in Huntsville.

"I can't imagine another place on this planet that has as much to offer," Luce says of the city's engineering and research base.

However, SkyRider needs investors, investors who want to produce a flying car and not simply sell off the small companies' technological achievements. "I want to sit in one pretty bad," Luce says, "but not so bad I want to go out of business."

For now, at Macro Industries, the largest working SkyRider is a quarter of the size of the goal. There is also a second version, a working model one-10th the size of the design. Both are useful for testing and design, he says. Both fly.

"It's not a concept any longer," Luce says. "It's a product."


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