Commuters fed up with nightmarish traffic may be getting closer to escaping the snarls in a flying car, with the latest possible exploration of the concept based in Silicon Valley.
With two companies — including one in Davis — already working on flying cars, considerable mystery surrounds the “personal aircraft” concept detailed in a patent application by Ilan Kroo, of Zee.Aero in Mountain View.
While Kroo's application doesn't say the proposed vertical-takeoff aircraft with foldable wings is meant to motor down roads, it includes an image of it parked between two cars, suggesting that it may be drivable as well as flyable.
Zee.Aero is in a nondescript, two-story white building with a locked door and black mesh covering its parking lot gates and fences, so it's impossible to see inside. Its founder and CEO, Kroo, could not be reached for comment. But his background is intriguing.
A Stanford aeronautics professor, he wrote his Stanford doctoral thesis on hang gliding and then joined the advanced aerodynamics division at NASA's Ames Research Center, before returning to Stanford as a faculty member in 1985.
Some of his previous research has focused on developing fuel-efficient aircraft, but he's also consulted for the Department of Defense on unmanned drone projects and for private aircraft manufacturers including Boeing and Aerion. Kroo also started an earlier company, Desktop Aeronautics, that sold aviation-related software and was bought by Aerion in 2012.
It's unclear who is funding Kroo's current venture. Zee.Aero's offices are in an industrial area a few miles from NASA Ames and the headquarters of Google, whose founders have an intense interest in aviation and space exploration. A building near Zee.Aero sports a Google sign. But Kroo told the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported on the patent Thursday, that his company is not affiliated with the search giant.
If he actually plans to make a vehicle that can maneuver through city traffic as well as zoom far above it, he's got some catching up to do. Two other companies are well along in the flying-car development process.
The company apparently closest to offering a version for sale is Terrafugia of Woburn, Mass. It flew and drove the craft, dubbed Transition, at a Wisconsin air show this summer and hopes to begin delivering them to customers by 2016, according to Vanessa Blakeley, a business development associate with the company.
She said Terrafugia already has received more than 100 $10,000 deposits from interested buyers of the two-seat vehicle, which is expected to cost $279,000. Outfitted with folding wings so it can be parked in a residential garage, the Transition has a gasoline automobile engine that gets 35 miles per gallon when powering its rear wheels on land and can hit 115 miles per hour after taking off with its rear-mounted propeller from an airport.
It's designed to meet federal requirements for a light sport aircraft, a category of single-engine craft that includes powered parachutes, balloons and gliders, which typically weigh no more than 1,320 pounds and require much less training to pilot than a regular plane.
It's also configured to meet government automobile safety standards, according to Blakeley, who said it has a federally approved windshield and tires, a roll cage, dual air bags and “a crumple zone” to absorb crashes.
The other company working on a flying car is Moller International of Davis, which was incorporated in 1983 but has been working on the concept since the 1960s. Its proposed, four-passenger Skycar 400 is a vertical-takeoff craft using fan ducts instead of helicopter blades and is designed to hit air speeds of up to 375 miles per hour.
Bruce Calkins, Moller's general manager, said the idea behind the Skycar is for a person to drive it a short distance from their home and then fly from a cul-de-sac, shopping center or some other location approved for helicopter-like takeoffs. Although the craft has been test flown while attached to a tether, he said the company hopes to conduct an untethered flight with a person on board in the next 18 months.
He declined to speculate when the Skycar might be for sale, noting the company has had money troubles and needs a major investor to finance production of the planes, which are expected to cost “around $500,000.” Because it has taken so long to develop the craft, Calkins said Moller has returned deposits to many people who plunked down money in the 1980s hoping to buy it.
Over the years, a number of others — including the Defense Department — have toyed with developing a vehicle that can drive down a road and also fly. Most have at least temporarily abandoned the idea. But despite Moller's financial troubles, Calkins said the company has never given up its quest.
Noting that as many as a dozen companies were working on flying-car concepts 15 years ago, he added, “there's really only a couple of us left in the business.”