NEW YORK – Ever since George Jetson first flew across TV screens in 1962, many have looked forward to the day when they too could cruise the "skyway" to work.
Four decades later, the notion of a flying car that triumphs over traffic with plane-like ease may soon become a reality.
Dr. Paul Moller, known to some as the "flying car guru," has spent 40 years developing his Skycar, which he claims will be zooming across America in just a few years.
"If we can get to the moon, we can fly [cars] in the sky, " he said. "This is trivial by comparison."
Moller's sleek Skycar M400 is completely controlled by microchips: The driver simply programs in the address or phone number of his destination and the car "drives" there on its own.
Say you live in New York and have a business meeting in California. After pulling your four-seat Skycar out of the driveway and hitting the road at 25 mph, you head for the nearest "vertiport," a remote area or building-top sanctioned for vertical takeoff.
Up in the sky, you begin to cruise at a cool 350 mph, dropping down twice for fuel. And there's no such thing as traffic.
"The cars all travel at the same speed, the same distance apart," Moller said. "With every car in America in the sky at the same time, you still won't see congestion."
Maybe. But is there really a need for a flying car?
Eric Lefcowitz, editor of the Web site Retrofuture.com, said the Skycar is overpowered as a plane and underpowered as a car (25 mph is the maximum road speed) and therefore impractical.
"We have two great technologies — the car and the plane. Why do we have to put the two together?" he said.
Lefcowitz also said fears of terrorism could cause the government to think twice about flying cars. "I still think it's unlikely that the FAA will approve it — especially after Sept. 11," he said. "Perish the thought of bin Laden in a Skycar."
But Moller said the Skycar is the most effective anti-terror vehicle ever made, given that the driver has little power to change its course. And the car will be even safer once NASA completes its Small Aircraft Transportation System — a plan to computerize small aircraft traffic to the point that "skyjacking" is impossible.
"We'll believe it when we see it," other critics say: Many argue the Spacion Wagon has been "a few years away" for decades.
"He says that every year," said Norris Luce, chief inventor at rival flying car-company MACRO Industries, in reference to Moller.
Indeed, fanciful engineers have been promising flying cars since as far back as 1917. But Moller maintains his design should be ready to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration in about a year. After the FAA approves it, a process that takes about three years, the car should be available — at a price.
"Our first customers will be wealthy, the types of people who can afford a small plane," Moller said. The first Skycars will go for about $1 million; the goal is to soon drop the price down to about $60,000.
But Moller had better get cracking. MACRO Industries plans to have its SkyRider X2R up and running by 2005.
Still, with all this work, will the flying car ever be more than just a movie-prop cliché of the future? Lefcowitz, an expert on "retro" inventions that people have been looking forward to for ages, hopes not.
"In a way I like it better frozen in amber," he said. "Once it happens, what next? We have to have something to look forward to."