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Paul Moller’s 50-year dream to build a flying car won’t die

The Canadian engineer popularized vertical takeoff and landing technology, but the flying car dreamer is a skeptic about today’s would-be air taxi startups.

Paul Moller’s 50-year dream to build a flying car won’t die
Dr. Paul Moller and his invention the “Sky Car”, 1999. [Photo: Getty Images]

Paul Moller stands in the back corner of a large garage in Davis, California, clean-shaven and wearing a large pair of golden aviator glasses. The 52-year-old engineer is a professor down the road at the University of California, Davis, but he’s not the type to sit back with a book and highlighter. In his white polo shirt and glossy brown bomber jacket, he looks ready to tinker with the shiny invention behind him at knee-level at a moment’s notice.

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The dark blue saucer behind Moller features eight propellers encircling a small, one-person cockpit. Behold Moller’s new M200X—a vehicle reminiscent of the Jetson family’s green flying car that Moller says is almost ready for manned test flights.

Cut to: Moller stands outside with the M200X in an open grassy field. The vehicle, tethered to a rope, powers up, whirring loudly. The saucer lifts slowly into the air, rocking back and forth unsteadily, before Moller and his team signal a quick landing. Engine number eight is stalling.

The year is 1988, and Moller, back in the garage, tells the CBS Evening News correspondent, “I’ve always had this desire to build this vehicle and make it work and own one. It’s taken me a bit longer than I planned.”

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Today, 34 years later, Moller wears smaller, frameless glasses. His hair, combed back, looks only slightly grayer than in the news reel. His appearance alone offers few clues that Moller is now 85 years old. He still speaks like he did back in 1988—with relentless optimism. The only real giveaway are the decades of additional experience he now has about the dream—his dream—to get a car into the sky.

Moller is hardly the first inventor bent on making flying cars a reality, but he’s likely the one person who’s been at it the longest. Almost immediately after the Wright Brothers’ success in 1903, the image of taking our cars and heading skyward has found a place in our imaginations. In 1917, Glenn Curtis won a patent for his Autoplane, a Jeep-like vehicle with airplane wings attached, earning him the title of “father of the flying car.” Twenty years later, two broken ankles and a history of crashing couldn’t keep aviation engineer Waldo Waterman from trying to reach the sky in his Arrowplane. Today’s most high-profile flying-car aspirants—publicly traded companies that have raised billions of dollars to achieve FAA approval—include Archer Aviation, eHang, Joby Aviation, and Lilium, as well as the still privately held Wisk Aero (controlled by the aerospace giant Boeing). They’re all engaged in a high-stakes race to conquer urban airspace, with a recent Morgan Stanley report predicting that the market for autonomous urban aircrafts could reach $1.5 trillion by 2040, though its authors later tempered their enthusiasm to $1 trillion. In total, there are more than 200 startups vying for their own spot in the air-car industry.

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Yet, more than a century after Curtis and his Autoplane, no inventor or company, no matter how well capitalized, has succeeded in developing a commercial flying vehicle.

The modern would-be flying car players owe a debt to Moller, who in the 1990s, before any of these companies existed, led the pack with his designs for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles—the de facto model for these aircrafts today. Harnessing electric-VTOL (eVTOL) technology with battery propulsion systems, these current vehicles are sleek and bug-like, not saucers or cars with haphazard wings.

Moller’s own work has never generated the kind of market interest like today’s eVTOL vehicles. According to Moller, he’s raised $100 million over a period of 50 years to develop various prototypes. For comparison, Joby Aviation was valued at $4.5 billion and raised $1.6 billion just prior to going public via a SPAC backed by Reid Hoffman in August 2021. The Santa Cruz, California-based air taxi company founded by JoeBen Bevirt in 2009 designed a VTOL vehicle with six electric motors at zero operating emissions, capable of carrying up to five riders over 150 miles at 200 MPH.

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Ask Moller what he thinks of his well-funded competition, and he doesn’t hold back. “A five-passenger vehicle in my opinion is absolutely ridiculous,” he says. His own designs have only ever held two passengers, meant for the average commute. “I know my approach is going to ultimately be successful,” he tells me from his office in Davis. “The five passenger vehicles have got all the major investment because it sounds so much more practical to have five people.”

As flying taxis continue to garner attention as they pursue commercial certification, what does Moller know that we should know? Is he the romantic dreamer—or is everyone else?

A Project to Last a Lifetime

Moller launched his engineering career younger than most. Born on a rural farm in Fruitvale, British Columbia, he was constantly at work. He built a house when he was eight, a Ferris wheel when he was 11, and his first helicopter at 14.

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Those projects were, well, really just child’s play. Building a vehicle that could transport passengers right from their homes across hundreds of miles was always the real goal.

“I fell in love with this technology of imitating the hummingbird when I was five years old, six years old,” he says. “And it’s never left.”

Tinkering his way through school, Moller opted out of college, instead choosing to attend trade school. Eventually, Moller enrolled in a handful of graduate-level aerodynamics courses at McGill University (and, randomly, some Russian ones too). He would earn a Master’s in Engineering and a Ph.D. there in just three years.

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Diplomas in hand, Moller, 27, relocated to California where he became a professor at UC-Davis from 1963 until 1975. In addition to teaching, Moller ran a lab dedicated to developing flying cars. In 1967, Moller’s M200X saucer model first took to the air—be it only a few jittery hops. Meanwhile, to better fund his work, Moller also embarked on what would become a series of side projects. The first, founded in 1972, was SuperTrapp Industries, a motorcycle muffler company. Then, in 1980, he developed a 38-acre industrial-research complex in Davis.

The mufflers and the office park could not quell his true passion. In 1983, he founded Moller International, the company dedicated to building commercial vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles—a flying car, in layman’s terms. To keep Moller International afloat, he would sell SuperTrapp in 1988 as well as parcels of land from his real-estate play. The $10 million of his personal fortune eventually went right back into Moller International.

“Not the smartest thing I ever did according to my wife,” Moller says. “That’s the way it is.”

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It wasn’t all for naught. By 1989, the year after his nightly news segment, the M200X would successfully hover 50 feet above the ground, going on to complete close to 200 test flights in front of prospective investors. Duly motivated, Moller worked on his next-generation aircraft, rolling out his latest design, the M400, in 1990.

The M400 Skycar, which Moller is still working on to this day, looks like a cross between a comic book batmobile and a fighter plane, complete with four jet engines that can lift passengers skyward before thrusting ahead.

Thanks to the Skycar prototype, the ’90s were Moller’s heyday. The press attended his test launches, he was a frequent guest on radio shows, and there were more evening news features. Moller’s exploits garnered splashy headlines like “Make Way For Sky Drivers” and “Flying Car Trials Poised to Take Off.” In each media hit, Moller, like a proto Elon Musk, would make the same promise: We just need a few more years.

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A few years turned into a decade. Then a decade turned into two. “What happens over a period of time,” Moller says, “is my technology becomes old hat.”

After Moller’s decade in the spotlight, the 2000’s ushered in what he calls his “dormant stage.” After taking Moller International public in August 2002, with shares trading on over-the-counter (OTC) QB bulletin board market, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Moller in 2003 for alleged civil fraud in connection to his investors in Oman and potentially unsubstantiated claims about the Skycar’s performance. Moller settled the suit without admitting guilt, paying $50,000.

“Once that was exposed, if that goes on the internet, you don’t really recover,” Moller tells me. “My stock dropped from $8 a share, where I was worth personally $500 million, to pennies per share in a fairly short period of time.” Six years later, in 2009, Moller filed for personal bankruptcy. Then, in 2019, Moller took his company private. “I’d like to have back the last 20 years,” he admits.

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This is usually where the dream dies. The money dries up, investors move on, and we wait for the next tinkerer to take up the cause. In fact, Joby Aviation would launch in 2009 and Google cofounder Larry Page would start his first flying-car company the following year. Anyone would see why Moller might take a step back, consider retirement, and sit by to watch a new generation of VTOL aircrafts try and take flight.

Except, for the boy who dreamed of hummingbirds, halting his work was never in the picture.

Moller Versus Everyone Else

According to Moller, a single question is consuming the entire advanced air mobility (AAM) market: Should these vehicles be powered by batteries or engines? Such a question will literally determine whether the sky’s the limit.

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“If you walk through the details, batteries create technical problems, but they also create FAA problems,” Moller says. “And I ran away from that.”

First, the technical problems.

Compared to an airplane engine, batteries are notably quieter—an important quality for any aircraft that plans on taking off from an urban center. Moller knows that his own Skycar is too loud for any urban environment. If Moller’s creation is ever to take off and land for curbside pickup, both the vehicle’s ducted fans and exhaust systems need to be significantly silenced. It’s a problem Moller’s vehicles have had since the beginning and he’s aware of the steps he could take to reverse the problem—but he’s not willing to sacrifice the energy he gets from his rotapower engine (currently fueled with methanol) in favor of a battery.

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Step one to building a quieter car is to slow down a vehicle’s propellers. Then, to maintain power with slower propellers, more blades are required. More blades mean heavier fans. So, rather than relying on a single, heavy fan, a vehicle with multiple smaller fans tends to be more efficient. It works, too: Joby Aviation’s Joby S4 flies with 6 propellers at only a soft hum, proving quieter than other aircrafts.

Moller, while commending the Joby’s low noise, remains unconvinced by the whole idea of eVTOLs. The six battery-powered propellers make them complicated. He compares it to six conjoined helicopters, essentially 40,000 loose parts that will hopefully fly in formation. If people won’t buy helicopters for personal use, why this?

“Of course, the whole idea here is to build something simple, that will bring cost down and get around the historically bad record of helicopters killing people,” Moller says. “You have multiple motors, multiple fans, but you have one battery. If the battery fails, it doesn’t matter.”

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Joby Aviation had no comment when asked to respond.

Battery failures, as it turns out, speak to Moller’s second concern: the FAA.

“Anything that’s really different from what is conventionally being processed by the FAA is going to have a very indeterminate timeline for completion,” Moller says. “I decided the FAA will never approve the batteries in my lifetime.” Granted, he acknowledges, “I may not have much more in my lifetime.”

Moller’s distaste for batteries in the new generation of flying cars makes him the outlier. A year ago, he stopped work on a hybrid model of the Skycar, opting for a version only with a rotary-powered engine.

“Even though the battery safety brings in some issues, the rest of the aspects in terms of the number critical points of failure and so on are a lot fewer,” says Shashank Sripad, a battery researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who recently co-authored an article on the promise of urban aircrafts. “I would say I’m very optimistic.” The top air-taxi contenders today, including the EHang 216, the A3 Vahana, Wisk’s Cora, and the Archer Maker, are all battery-powered.

Battery safety, of course, points to the dangers associated with sending a highly combustible lithium-ion-filled cartage high into the sky. In July 2013, an Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliner jet caught fire when the craft’s lithium battery overheated. In 2016, ahead of Boeing’s 737 MAX Jet, the FAA released a new guidance requiring enhanced safety protocols for aircrafts with rechargeable batteries, intending “to eliminate the potential for uncontrollable failures.”

The FAA already approves auxiliary battery packs in commercial airline jets, so according to Sripad that needs to be extended to include jets with propulsion batteries. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already taken steps to do so, something Sripad sees as favorable for the FAA.

Moller isn’t surprised by this mindset. He could’ve been called overconfident for his repeated insistence that the Skycar was almost ready. Now, if he needs to wait a little longer for the market—and the FAA—to realize engines are the answer, he will.

“I don’t envy those people trying to get batteries by the FAA,” he says.

The Next Generation

For now, Moller is content running Freedom Motors, another side company he founded that manufactures rotapower engines. He says that within three years, revenue from Freedom will be able to financially support Moller International.

Moller’s doing his own math: “My view is that the eVTOL market is going to self-destruct in the coming year.” If that’s the case, he won’t be far behind with his own funding for the Skycar. Plus, what’s three years when there’s $1 trillion or more at stake?

While Moller insists that the eVTOL market is bound to crash, there’s a new generation of staunch optimists in the market. Both Archer CEO Adam Goldstein and JoeBen Bevirt of Joby Aviation have stated that they’ll have FAA certification by the end of 2024. In May, Joby received Part 135 air carrier certification from the FAA—the first of three stages and an important step in allowing them to begin commercial air taxi services by their projected target.

Bevirt and Moller are no strangers to each other, either. As a freshman at UC-Davis in 1992, Bevirt walked into Moller’s flying car lab where the two would briefly work together. Perhaps born out of his experiences in Moller’s lab, when Bevirt launched his own career, he wanted his vehicles to differ from Moller’s Skycar in an audible way: noise.

For now, Moller keeps a close eye on the eVTOL landscape and writes extensive reports comparing different companies. He keeps his findings to himself, though, not wanting to hurt what he sees as the inevitable end to eVTOL companies—including Joby Aviation.

“If he’s going to self-destruct, I’ll let him do that,” Moller says. “I don’t want to contribute to that.”

Age, too, is of little concern for Moller when it comes to his waiting game. He’s confident that when the market looks to engines once again, he’ll be a key player.

“I’m into life extension,” he said. “I figure I’m going to live long enough to make this work. I think I got at least another 20 years out of this.”

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