DETROIT -- It might take rocket scientists to solve the problem of urban commuter traffic -- a snarling issue that is souring some consumers on vehicle ownership.
So NASA is now on the job -- with a vehicle technology right off the pages of a sci-fi comic book.
NASA is undertaking a two-year feasibility study of a transportation system called vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL).
Think of large commuter vehicles that operate like the famous British Harrier Jump Jet fighter planes -- capable of lifting straight off the ground to zoom commuters over slow-moving traffic at 200 mph.
Proponents and project participants in traffic-choked Silicon Valley, Calif., where the feasibility study is taking place, believe the gridlock-leaping concept could shorten the usual two-hour rush-hour crawl there to about 30 minutes.
"This is not an imaginary vehicle. It's being developed right now in Silicon Valley," said Mark Moore, head of on-demand mobility planning at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Several companies are working on versions of the vehicles, Moore told a gathering of automotive engineers at SAE World Congress here in mid-April.
The mere fact such a concept was discussed at a major automotive industry conference shows how auto companies and their suppliers are broadening their thinking to consider new approaches to mobility.
The envisioned airborne system would work in combination with a ride-sharing service like Uber, proponents say.
Its technology is certain to captivate engineers in any transportation sector.
The vertical-takeoff concept involves distributed electric propulsion, which Moore calls a transformational technology. A new generation of highly efficient compact electric motors drive fan blades. The blades operate like helicopter propellers in takeoff mode. Once the vehicle is airborne, the propellers shift position to work like airplane propellers.