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Thursday, 27 May, 1999, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
Flying car ready for take-off

No parking or traffic jam concerns for this car
A family car that flies is about to begin test flights in the United States.

If Canadian engineer Paul Moller's Skycar M400 is a success, the frustrated motorist's dream of beating traffic jams by taking to the skies will no longer be the stuff of science fiction.

The M400 is shaped like a Batmobile, slightly wider and higher than a normal family car. But it runs on ordinary petrol, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

Earlier flying cars were simply conventional vehicles with wings bolted on top, which had to be dismantled before the they could run on roads.

But the M400 operates with four pairs of engines, which power fans and provide the thrust that simply lifts the car into the air.

Once airborne, it should be able to achieve speeds of 600km an hour. "It really is a magic carpet ride," says Mr Moller.

Years of research

Mr Moller, a former engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, has been working on the technology for a flying car since 1963.

In 1989, he built a two-person prototype, which he has flown to an altitude of 20 metres.

As he has no licence for the craft, the plane remains on the end of a wire tied to a crane. But he is confident that the car would fly well over longer distances.

His company, Moller International, has spent $100m developing the flying car, which he calls a volantor.

A computer will actually fly the M400, so no pilot's licence will be necessary. "We want to be able to land in grandma's backyard at night, in thick fog, without hitting the clothes line," says Jack Allison, an engineer on the project.

But if the computer or the engines fail, the M400 does come equipped with two parachutes for emergency landings.

Take off from your local vertiport

However, hovering along over traffic queues and touching down when the road is clear is still some way in the future, even if the M400 test-flights are a success.

The car would have to take-off from what Moller calls a vertiport.

Noise levels and safety risks make it impractical to take-off in the middle of the street, but he believes that in the future vertiports could be as common as corner shops.

The M400 will not be cheap. The first models will cost up to a $1m, but Moller believes that a mass-produced model could cost as little as $60,000.

And the flying car is not easy on petrol either. It does only 8km per litre.

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