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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

NextFest Inventor Paul Moller has pulled off an astonishing achievement. He's found a parking spot in San Francisco. And we can be grateful for this, because his Flying Car is undoubtedly the draw at the technology exhibition NextFest (here until Sunday, at Fort Mason).

It's just a prototype, but judging by the queues of eager children - of all ages - that clustered around his M400 SkyCar, he has the hit of the show. Moller has spent $200 million and many years of his life on this quixotic venture. We'll share the latest specifications with you.

The M400 needs 35 clear feet to take off but thanks to its 770 hp engine can whiz to 365 mph - cruise control kicks in at 326 mph - and climb at 6,400 feet per minute. You may hear it before you see it: it emits a rather noisy 65 dba at 500 feet. Interestingly, with a fuel consumption of 20 miles to the gallon on the road, it's rather more economical than a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) and looks positively eco-friendly compared to a Hummer.

Moller said that today's economics give each M400 a theoretical price tag of around half a million dollars, but in volume production it could drop to $300,000 and in really large volumes to below $50,000. At which point, uh, look out!

SkyCar
Mirror... signal ... manoeuver

Fans of dangerous vehicles may also want to see the EZ-Rocket that graces the outside arena, especially for the very frank safety literature that accompanies it (reproduced here). The EZ-Rocket is a home-made plane that crosses a rocket with a glider - the idea being to get up very fast indeed using an isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen rocket. Typical burn-out is within two minutes.

"The pilot can dump the LOX [liquid oxygen] through a manual valve into the atmosphere," we learned. "Venting oxygen behind a 200 MPH glider is not hazardous. We've done this during a safe-abort flight." After drinks and light refreshments had been stowed away, we hope.

Elsewhere at NextFest, children danced on stage with a creepy robot from Honda called Asimo. Asimo looks harmless, has a very lifelike gait but obviously, only a limited range of movements and not very much to say for himself. It's a bit like arguing with a weblogger.

GM showed off a hybrid car, NASA showed off subvocal communications (grinding your teeth will do, thanks to a tiny sensor and the magic of wireless), and a DARPA-funded company showed off their iSwarms. DARPA is obsessed with swarms, because the military - mirroring Japan's long and fruitless obsession with AI - pays them lots of money in the belief that it will give them a competitive advantage. The military wants future wars to be fit for TV, and hopes robots can fight them. Some scientists including Bill Joy fear that nanoscale swarms will eventually swamp humanity but there's a much more immediate problem with the technology: the critters jump into Kevin Kelly's beard, and refuse to come out.

More seriously, Chris "teleportation" Anderson and his team at Wired deserve praise for curating a splendid exhibition. It deserves to be a great success. It runs until Sunday and tickets are $15 a head or $40 for a family ticket. All beside one of the most beautiful stretches of waterfront in the world.

As your reporter departed, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was praising risk-taking to great cheers from school-children, and Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle promised the kids that they could have tomorrow off. The children looked confused. The Schools Superintendent whispered in his ear that since it was Friday, they'd have tomorrow off anyway. Sometimes the future just rolls around so quickly... ®

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NextFest

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