THE sleek two-seater merges into the freeway traffic and nudges its way over to the express lane. Settling into the flow of Monday morning rush hour, the driver slips his hands off the steering wheel, reaches into his briefcase, and pulls out the morning paper. Opening to the sports section, he settles back to read as the car races along at a comfortable 100 miles an hour.
A scenario for disaster? Certainly, on today's highways. But sometime in the not-too-distant future, this may be a perfectly common sight.
Known as Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) or ``smart cars, smart highways,'' advanced electronics in tomorrow's automobiles could vastly improve the ``productivity'' of highways around the world, visionaries say. Such systems could pack more cars on densely-crowded roadways, improve fuel economy, and reduce highway fatalities.
The largest-scale IVHS system now in use is Berlin's Ali-Scout - produced by Siemens AG as a navigation aid.
``Get in the right hand lane,'' the male, faintly metallic-sounding voice drones from a hidden speaker. ``Make a left turn,'' it commands, an arrow echoing the order on a small video screen mounted on the dashboard. ``You have reached your destination,'' the voice concludes, as the hotel comes into view.
Installed in a fleet of 700 Berlin vehicles, Ali-Scout Uses a combination of visual cues and verbal warnings to warn motorists of traffic tie-ups, or guide them to unfamiliar destinations.
Ali-Scout's in-car hardware is linked by infrared signal to 2,000 ``beacons'' around the city. In turn, they are tied to a central traffic monitoring station where a mainframe computer digests information about city road conditions. Should a main artery be blocked by an accident, the system will automatically detour Ali-Scout cars onto alternate routes.
The first IVHS program in the United States is Project Pathfinder, which will soon go into use along a 10-mile stretch of California's crowded Santa Monica Freeway. The cars used in the Pathfinder experiment will be equipped with a video map capable of displaying all local roads in precise detail. Should there be a tie-up, an alternate route will be highlighted on the dashboard-mounted video screen.
Although Ali-Scout and Pathfinder offer little more than route guidance, future IVHS systems will take on more responsibilities. Chrysler's Millenium concept vehicle uses TV cameras to eliminate blind spots, and its radar-controlled collision avoidance system can actually slam on the brakes before a driver would react.
Among other IVHS concepts under development:
Infrared night vision sensors can cut through the darkness or even the worst pea-soup fog, projecting a computer-generated image on the windshield.
On board camera systems, like the GM LaneLok, can help prevent a driver from inadvertently crossing lanes.
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.
This is more than a flight of fantasy; there is a growing need for IVHS.
Since 1970, the number of registered vehicles in this country has grown by 80 percent, to 181 million. Travel has increased by 70 percent. And by 2020, highway use is expected to double again.
``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. ``One solution is to build more highways ... but that will be extremely difficult to accomplish.''
The alternative, Mr. Morgan and other experts say, is to find ways to improve roadway productivity.
Providing in-car navigation is only one of the ways in which technology may help smooth highway traffic. Along the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, motorists may wait five minutes or more in rush hour to pay their tolls.
A few hundred miles to the North, the Bay State is trying to speed up toll collection for 1,600 businesses regularly using the Massachusetts Turnpike. As the motorists enter a toll booth, they hand the collector a magnetically encoded card which is then run through a card reader. The businesses are billed monthly.
Motorists won't even have to stop if their cars are equipped to use an even faster system being tested at New York's Lincoln Tunnel, the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, and the Dallas North Tollway.
Developed by the Amtech Corporation of Dallas, the system aims a microwave burst at the windshield of cars passing through special ``tollbooths.'' The beam bounces off an electronic tag about the size of a state inspection sticker and identifies the vehicle to a billing computer. The tolls can be billed to the motorist by mail, or deducted from his bank account or an account paid in advance.