`Smart Cars'

HERE'S a look at how your future commute may go: Each morning you'll climb into your electric-powered car and slip silently onto the street. The lightweight vehicle has no noisy gasoline engine or polluting exhaust. The computerized map on your dashboard, in touch with sensors along the way, charts the best route to the freeway entrance and suggests an alternative route when it spots a traffic buildup ahead.

Once on the freeway, another computer takes control of all the cars, using magnetic strips embedded in the roadway. Cars travel bumper to bumper at highway speeds in much narrower lanes, allowing many more cars on the road at the same time. Upon exiting the freeway, you finish your commute on battery power, having had your battery recharged automatically while you relaxed on the freeway.

These ``smart cars'' and ``smart roads'' are in our future, say transportation planners. Last month, the US Department of Transportation called for a joint government-private research program to develop these new technologies. Plans to test computerized map systems (in Orlando, Fla., and southern California) and an electro-magnetic roadway have been announced.

Other transportation needs seem more pressing, including cleaner fuels and efficient engines; better batteries that would make electric cars more practical; and continued improvements of other mass transportation systems, especially rail travel.

Testing smart systems for autos, particularly the computerized maps, does seems worthwhile. But critics already warn that serious issues of legal liability are raised by any scheme that takes control of autos from drivers. If an accident occurs, they say, who is to blame? The driver? The government, for installing the system? The manufacturer?

Taking control from drivers may be a cultural shift few of us will want to make. Leave the driving to a computer? What's the fun in that? (If I can just edge a little closer to that slow-poke Buick I can cut off the Honda, then slip back in front of the bread truck and still make my exit....)

Maybe George Jetson's flying spacemobile, maneuvering through three dimensions of traffic hazards instead of just two, is still the vehicle of the future.

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