Detroit — The sleek two-seater merges onto the freeway and nudges its way onto the express lane. Settling into the flow of morning rush hour, the driver takes his hands off the steering wheel, reaches into his briefcase, and pulls out the paper. Opening it to the sports section, he settles back to read as the car races along at close to 100 miles an hour. Dangerous? Certainly, on today's highways. But 20 years from now, this may be a perfectly common sight.
``Highway congestion ... and highway safety are national problems,'' Richard Morgan, executive director of the Federal Highway Administration, noted at a recent automotive conference at the University of Michigan.
Since 1970, the number of registered vehicles in this country has increased by nearly 80 percent, to 181 million. The number of miles Americans travel each year has increased by 70 percent.
``One solution is to build more highways ... but that will be extremely difficult to accomplish,'' Mr. Morgan said. Instead, he and other transportation experts believe that with only some expansion, the nation's existing road system should prove adequate for decades to come through the use of a concept dubbed Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems.
``Smart cars'' equipped with computer controllers, radar braking, and satellite navigation could greatly improve the ``productivity'' of American roads.
Using microchip-controlled transmitters buried beneath the surface of the road, police and road crews could warn drivers of impending problems, such as accidents or lane closings. An antenna on the car would receive the information as the car passed over the hidden chip. The data would then be relayed to the driver by a voice synthesizer or flashed on the windshield by a ``heads-up'' display, similar to those on fighter jets.
Roughly a third of all traffic fatalities occur when someone runs an intersection. General Motors Corporation and several other automakers are experimenting with radar-based systems that automatically apply a car's brakes should an on-board computer sense an imminent collision. This would also help maintain the proper distance between cars during rush hour.
The ultimate application of vehicle electronics, however, may seem like a scene out of the old space-age cartoon program ``The Jetsons.'' Slip into the driver's seat, enter an address on a keyboard or through voice control, and the vehicle will safely drive itself to the destination at speeds that could top 150 m.p.h.
A buried wire might guide the car along the road while satellites, roadside antennas, or buried microchips would constantly monitor the vehicle's location and transmit data on road conditions to the car's on-board computers. With the help of radar or laser imagers and other sensors, the computer would find and steer around obstacles.
Though some believe the technology is already available to design such a system, the automotive infrastructure - from carmakers to highway designers - would require such tremendous changes that self-piloted cars are still thought to be decades away. Pieces of the puzzle, however, are already beginning to appear on the road, and others are on their way:
The Detroit Police Department recently went on line with a fleet guidance system through which each patrol car's location is precisely monitored at all times by a central dispatcher. When a call comes in, the dispatcher can then decide which car can respond fastest.
In experimental programs in several countries, vehicles are being marked with a special card carrying data akin to the bar codes found on groceries. As they pass through highway toll booths, monitor systems record the vehicle's identification, and at the end of the month the owner is sent a bill.
Etak, a California firm originally launched by Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, is marketing the Navigator, which tracks a vehicle's location on a dashboard-mounted video display screen and can guide the driver to his or her destination.
GM, which bought a small stake in Etak several years ago, is cooperating with the California Department of Transportation on Project Pathfinder. Using one of 25 Oldsmobiles equipped with Etak-based video maps, motorists on the Santa Monica Freeway will be alerted by special highway-mounted transmitters when traffic backs up, and the system will suggest alternative routes.
``In some implementation, automated highways are inevitable,'' says Bob Ervin, acting director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. The big question, he cautions, is who will set the eventual standards for Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, and who will reap the rewards - the billions of dollars from sales of the necessary hardware and software.
The Big Three carmakers have been tinkering for years with ``smart car'' components, as have some smaller component manufacturers. And some of their efforts, such as the Etak Navigator, have already begun appearing on the street.
Domestic research could really take off if, as expected, the government authorizes funding when the federal highway bill is renewed in 1991.
Still, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan in the development of smart cars and the highways they'll need to travel on, experts warn.
Six European countries and 20 European automotive and electronics manufacturers have already formed a public/private consortium called Prometheus, an $800 million research-and-development program designed to speed up the application of electronics to auto transportation.
The Japanese, with some of the most crowded roadways in the world, are making similar efforts, and some believe they could dominate the field, just as they have in areas of consumer electronics.
``The US must either speed up its own initiative or be overtaken,'' cautions Tom Hanna, president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.