Functional innovations from carmakers and their creative crews

A ''piano key'' electronic transmission on the steering wheel; voice commands to start up the engine, open the hood, or turn on the lights; radar brakes that prevent a car from striking an object in front of it; the ability to plug into a satellite system to pinpoint where you are on a road map.

''Star wars''-type ideas? Not at all, according to leading researchers with automotive labs here in Motor City.

In line with its thrust for high-quality, longer-life vehicles and state-of-the-art assembly procedures, the auto industry is also driving hard ahead for major functional innovations.

Some may never see the light of day, while others require only a little more fine-tuning before they reach the showroom in a production car.

A Ford Motor Company concept vehicle, for example, employs an electronic transmission that is controlled by keys on the steering wheel.

''Push 'D' and away you go,'' explains James Donaldson, director of advanced car business and power train planning for Ford. ''The car is loaded with stuff we're working on,'' he adds, ''but the point is, it's a driveable, workable car.''

Another system involves operator voice commands to open the hood, turn the lights on or off, and lock or unlock the doors.

''Lights on!'' you command, and the headlamps are ablaze. ''Trunk open!'' and the trunk lid flips up. You can even start the engine by remote control - a nice idea on a cold winter morning.

Then there are such things as superefficient engines and radar-controlled brakes - designed to keep a car from striking a solid object on the road - plus a vast array of composite materials for car bodies and components.

But before a carmaker introduces any new system into production, ''we've got to make sure it's foolproof,'' says Mr. Donaldson of Ford. This concern has delayed the introduction, just now beginning, of anti-skid braking on cars in the US, a system already being sold in Western Europe. It also is behind the industry's resistance to the installation of air bags in cars.

If the world should someday run out of oil, General Motors is all set (or soon could be) with a coal-fueled car in which ultrafine specks of coal are blown into a turbine engine and burned. The coal-burning system has already been installed in a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan. While the system's a long way from what would be required in the marketplace, the technology exists to be perfected.

The world's carmakers have all kinds of ideas - some quite outlandish - for the autos of tomorrow. There may even be a 4-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-steering car in your future.

''That's the best of all worlds,'' some engineers declare. ''But it's also a long way off,'' Mr. Donaldson says.

The point is, the creative crews of the world's auto manufacturers never stop dreaming, propelled by the challenge to originate and perfect an idea that's all new, but also by the sight of the dollar signs at the end of the road if the idea works out.

Auto designers and engineers are always working on what they label ''concept cars,'' often seen at auto shows in the United States, Europe, and Japan. The concept cars give the creative staffs more room to work in employing their talents without the restraints of the marketplace. The objective, in some cases, may be to create the most fuel- and package-efficient cars possible, while at the same time giving the designers a free wheel in letting their imaginations roam.

While some of the cars may resemble a spaceship out of a science-fiction movie, others are far more down to earth, with ideas and components that may find their way onto the production lines of tomorrow.

Indeed, automakers spend large sums on their experimental labs, trying to come up with ideas that work before the competition can get their own ideas onto the road.

Already the rapid growth of electronics in cars can be readily seen, not only in engine controls but in the comfort and entertainment areas as well. Today's microprocessors can scan the major systems in a car and report a malfunction, alerting the driver to pull into a service shop posthaste.

The new downsized Cadillac Fleetwoods and DeVilles employ two computers that actually talk to each other, engineers explain. While the engine computer scans and controls 14 separate functions of the engine, the body computer oversees 13 functions, including the temperature and air flow inside the car.

Helping to build the brand-new concepts as they reach the point of production will be the superadvanced automotive plants of the future.

''Flexible automation,'' a popular buzz phrase these days, essentially means that carmakers can build a wide variety of cars on a production line without the need to retool as regularly as in the past.

General Motors reports that it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion a year for the next five years on machine tools for its US-based operations.

''We are not engaged simply in a replacement of yesterday's machine tools,'' explains executive vice-president Donald J. Atwood, ''but in the creation of a superior manufacturing capability.

''More than ever the auto industry must aim for the highest levels of technology, flexibility, and productivity.''

Nothing can stand still for very long, carmakers conclude.

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