From the outside it looks just like any other late-model Buick Riviera on the road -- sleek, cushy, and expensive. What makes it different, however, is the ``graphic control center'' (GCC), which sits low on the dash. Six electronic modules compose the GCC system in this test car: body computer; CRT (cathode ray tube) controller; CRT monitor; HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) controller; radio receiver; and tape player. Simply by touching the screen of the CRT, I can call up a treasure-trove of information, all in one compact package.
But there's a lot more to the GCC than meets the eye -- or the fingertip.
``In cars today we have different control systems for each function,'' explains Carey Wilson, assistant staff engineer for electronic systems at Buick. ``In the Buick CRT car we have one centralized computer system.
``With a centralized electronics system, we can monitor the entire car so that we can really expand on the diagnostics and serviceability of the car,'' he continues. One engineer calls it the ``window to the electronic system.''
The Buick GCC, as well as other systems in the developmental stage by other carmakers, shows the direction all automakers are traveling these days as they open this ``window'' on the cars of tomorrow.
``Within the next decade,'' says General Motors chairman Roger B. Smith, ``every single function in the motor vehicle will come under computer control.'' Speaking to members of the Society of Automotive Engineers late last winter, Smith explained: ``Electronics will govern every vehicle system . . . the transmission, steering, suspension, navigation, and braking systems.'' Up to now computers have been used mainly for emissions and fuel-economy functions, plus the radio.
Further, computers will be used to control ``every single device and function in our plants -- from material handling to machining, assembly, inspection, and maintenance,'' according to Smith.
Ford Motor Company is evaluating an array of advanced electronic features in an experimental car known as the Mark VII Comtech. A driver-control pod, for example, lets the driver operate a number of functions without removing his hands from the steering wheel. As does the Buick Riviera, the Ford Comtech includes a CRT which provides an array of data at the touch of a fingertip.
As the centralized electronics system matures, it will be able to diagnose a car problem before a single part is touched.
``A mechanic will know exactly where to look,'' says Wilson.
Most of the new cars these days already have microprocessors that can identify some major problems. These computers will improve steadily, say automotive engineers.
The rapid switch to high-tech electronics is ``not because it's high-tech and not because it's in vogue,'' says Chrysler's Bennett E. Bidwell, ``but because it's more dependable and more durable.''
``When the manufacturers revamp a model, they tend to put in an improved electronic system,'' according to Stanford University Prof. J. David Powell, writing in the trade weekly Automotive News. In today's cars, Professor Powell adds, ``the computer, or microprocessor, monitors the oxygen in the exhaust, processes the data, and then commands how much fuel shall go back into the engine to keep the ratio of air to fuel about right. The microprocessor was put in specifically to meet new legal requirements to reduce exhaust pollutants.
``But that is merely scratching the surface. There are many other things that can be measured in an engine, be processed by a computer, and be used to adjust the working parts.
``The technology is already at hand. The computer will be able to watch over every part of the engine. It will tell the driver when a part is wearing out or when some adjustment is necessary.''
With a centralized electronics system, an automaker also will be able to assemble a car far more accurately and reliably because the car will be tied into a computer in the assembly plant and totally checked as it is being built. That should be good news to harried motorists who sometimes have no end of trouble with their cars.
Further, once a centralized system is refined, a mechanic, as part of the normal maintenance service of a car, could plug into some kind of terminal and be able to reprogram the car with the latest features. Thus, from an electronics standpoint, a car will be kept up to date far longer than is possible today.
Today's multibillion-dollar automotive electronics market has climbed from less than $600 million at the start of the decade into the billions today -- and it's still climbing. Electronics, which last year represented no more than 5 percent of the cost of a new car, are expected to climb to 10 percent by 1990. And the end is nowhere in sight.
Multiplex wiring is on a swift move, too, as automakers aim to reduce the number of wires inside a car.
``Today we have a wire going to every bulb and switch,'' says Wilson. As with a telephone party line, in a fully multiplex system there'd only be three wires -- a power wire, a ground wire, and a control lead wire -- plus little boxes all over the car to control the lights, motors, and the like. The power, ground, and control wires would go to each box.
Whenever a driver wants to control a specific function -- say he wants to turn on the headlights -- the computer will send out a signal on the control lead to tell that particular box that the driver wants to initiate that function.
Space-age multiplex systems, which would dramatically reduce the amount of wiring in a car, are due in the next two or three years.
Navigational systems are also heaving into sight, not only by the use of satellites but in other ways, too, such as the system used by cellular phones in cars today. ``You can utilize it to give you the information that you need for navigation just as you can do with satellites,'' says Wilson.
``There are a number of ways to do navigation and we are investigating which is the best.''
Chrysler's Laser Atlas and Satellite System (CLASS), which may be on the market by 1990, uses the NAVSTAR satellites. By that time there are expected to be enough airborne satellites that a vehicle can be positioned anywhere in the world and receive signals.
``A centralized electronic system is really the key,'' sums up Mr. Wilson. ``As soon as we get a universal display system on board the car, there is absolutely no end to the possibilities.''
Electronic wizardry is on a fast march -- and carmakers are staying in step. They have to if they want to compete in the decades ahead. No one can be competitive in the 21st century with 20th-century know-how.