Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Moller Skycar should be a sky-van

The Moller Skycar is one of the all-time top stories at the intersections of dreams, vision & uber-cool technology.  And if there were an award for the longest-running in this category, it would be a top contender.  Barring the historically momentary reality-distortion-field that was the Segway scooter (a.k.a. "IT"), which purportedly would have cities built around it, it's hard to think of another story which would more radically advance the way we transit and live.

But the Moller Skycar efforts look to me to be surfing the wrong initial wave.  It feels like a classic case of over-focus on delivering a version 5.0 as the 1st release.  Why develop an initial market for Skycars based on passenger transportation?  Executing a huge dream is already up against the exponential laws of complexity.  Why not push the passenger Skycar to a later-term goal, and 1st develop a completely computer operated sky-van for transporting packages and goods?  This would skirt a lot of complexity and issues related to passenger air travel?  E.g.:
  • No windows.
  • Less design dedicated to crash protection and passenger safety.
  • Less extra fuel margins of safety.
  • Opportunity for ground/rooftop-based launch acceleration.  A lot of power & fuel (and design) is needed for take-off.  This overhead can be off-loaded to terrestrial launch mechanisms.  Examples might include catapults or rapid-descents from high rooftops to achieve more wing-efficient velocities.
  • Launch and landing could be sub-optimal locations for passengers, but in lower risk hubs where package/goods delivery could connect with other inter-modal forms.
  • Goods delivery is subject to more optimal packing & routing algorithms and opens up some interesting auction mechanics.
  • Cheaper, more abrupt emergency/crash mechanisms.
  • An easier sell vis-a-vis public perceptions of risk.
  • The technology can be proven and scaled in lower-risk areas first.
This is not to say that Moller's current plans won't succeed in serving some markets.  Segway is doing fine shuttling employees and parcels across warehouses, is fun for tourists and a great way to for the police force to get around parks efficiently.  But it seems to me that the company that transforms modern day transit to a Jetsons-like age will 1st offer something more pragmatically disruptive, and then surf that wave to the future of passenger travel.

And in the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG) dimension, how about "the next Tesla" startup being a sky-van?  Maybe license components from Moller, Tesla, and the myriad more established industry players like Cessna/Bell Helicopter, Gulfstream, Boeing, et al.  Might it make sense to design in modularity, analogous to the "tractor trailer" concept, where the aircraft is separate from the cargo containers?

Disclosure: no positions

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