Turning drivers to `Star Tech'. Chips in Detroit cars verging on `Beam me up'

The Ford Motor Company will begin using a new ``intelligent power'' computer chip on some of its cars next year. Unlike most other semiconductors, these computer chips will be able to share a single pair of wires with other chips to operate such things as cruise control and power windows.

Though using the same set of wires, the chips would be able to distinguish when and when not to operate by using digital codes. This process, known as multiplexing, should help reduce the increasingly thick bundle of wires snaking through today's automobiles.

For decades, progress in automotive technology was measured by mechanical improvements. More and more, however, today's cars are being refined electronically.

The average new car today contains about $650 in electronic components, according to Ford chairman Donald Petersen: ``By just 1990 that figure will probably rise to $1,400.''

Integrated circuits have come to play an essential role in almost every aspect of automotive design. Performing more calculations in a second than an engineer could make in 40 years, electronic engine control modules increase fuel efficiency and reduce pollution. Computer chips are essential to new antiskid brakes and electronically adjustable suspension systems. They even control our digital car radios.

It is not surprising, then, that the nation's No. 1 carmaker, General Motors Corporation, is also the ``largest producer and consumer of integrated circuits,'' according to GM's president, F. James McDonald.

Nearly 1,000 automotive electronic engineers gathered in Detroit last week for Convergence '86, an annual symposium meant to examine the latest developments in the field and to debate what may be coming next.

Some of the most visible, or in this case audible, advancements they found were right in the passenger compartment.

The first car radio was manufactured by Motorola in the 1930s, and until the early 1970s there wasn't much of an improvement in sound quality. But just as the static of AM made way for FM stereo, and as noisy 8-tracks were replaced by cassettes, the next big development is the use of ultra-hi-fi compact disc players.

Today, in fact, several carmakers have actually begun promoting some of their vehicles, not by comparing size or power, but by the quality of their audio systems, which may cost more than $1,000.

Another major change is visible right on the dashboard. About 15 percent of all new cars are coming equipped with electronic dashboards, and within a decade that is expected to increase to at least 55 percent. Jean Buffham, a researcher for the Connecticut-based International Resource Development Inc., cites two primary reasons: ``The prevailing market assumption that high-tech sells cars, and it is a logical response to the emerging notion that the car driver is as much an information manager as a navigator.''

Most of today's electronic instrument clusters rely on three basic display devices: light emitting diodes, or LEDs, which usually glow red or green; liquid crystal diplays, such as those found in digital watches; or vacuum fluorescent tubes, which resemble LEDs.

General Motors, however, has begun offering cathode ray tubes (CRTs) -- or video display terminals -- in its Buick Riviera models.

CRTs offer the option of providing a nearly unlimited range of information, including navigational guidance. Most major carmakers are developing either inertial or satellite navigation packages.

Inertial, or dead-reckoning, navigation units rely on such things as electro-compasses and wheel sensors to track a car's movements against a self-contained, computerized map. The first such system was offered for sale less than a year ago by California-based Etak.

Still at least five years away, satellite systems will rely on radio beacons provided by orbiting military satellites to locate a car to within 15 feet anywhere in America.

There are some drawbacks to all this electronics.

Not only are initial costs higher than for older, mechanical devices, but service and replacements costs are, too. Replacing a defective mechanical speedometer might cost $50, versus $300 or more for an electronic dashboard cluster.

For that reason, another area of intense interest is in developing a computerized repairman. Both GM and Ford are working out the final bugs on so-called ``artificial intelligence'' systems to guide even yeoman mechanics, who will simply tap an ailing car's digital data port with their own service bay computers.

Not only will these systems be able to diagnose a problem, but they'll give each car a ``memory'' so that intermittent defects can be recorded and analyzed later.

``These [systems] allow the service technician to diagnose even those intermittent problems that seem to disappear when the car is in for service,'' Petersen says.

Perhaps the biggest question, some industry insiders say, is trying to decide just how much more the typical auto buyer wants in the way of electronics.

Chrysler and several other manufacturers found little interest in the ``talking'' cars they introduced earlier this decade. Indeed, many carmakers have confounded buyers with electronic dashboards so complex as to be virtually unreadable without a thick training manual -- what one designer calls ``the video game syndrome.''

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