IF the car of the near future is a lot ``smarter'' than the one you're driving now, some credit may go to a small Massachusetts company that has its origins about as far from where the rubber hits the road as possible - in the study of stars and galaxies.
In the 1970s, researchers with the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory in western Massachusetts devised radio receivers that were smaller and less expensive than the large dish antennas typically in use. It was partly a matter of economic necessity, says Richard Huguenin, then a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and head of the observatory.
But in the process of building these tools to capture and analyze millimeter-length radio waves coming from outer space, Dr. Huguenin and his colleagues learned a lot about possible down-to-earth applications of this technology.
Those possibilities led Huguenin to found Millitech Corporation in 1982. Though the company still has a ``core'' business in supplying millimeter-wave components for scientific research and for the aerospace industry, it is moving toward a much different and quickly developing field: crash-avoidance radar for automobiles.
According to Huguenin, Millitech is in the final stages of designing a radar unit that will be attached to the front of automobiles, behind the grille or bumper. This small cylindrical device - enclosing an antenna and electronic circuitry - will send out a millimeter-wave signal that will bounce off approaching objects and return to the unit, which will warn the driver - with lights, buzzers, or both - of potential collision situations.
The safety benefits of such a system could be substantial. A United States Department of Transportation study in 1990 found that a half-second earlier warning would reduce rear-end and intersection collisions by 50 percent.
In more advanced designs, the radar would interact with cruise control and antilock brakes, trigger a change in the vehicle's speed, and automatically maintain a safe distance between cars.
Millitech's crash-avoidance radar has been in development for four years. Other firms have been at the task even longer, and one competitor, VORAD Safety Systems Inc. in San Diego, already has a product on the market. VORAD's radar unit uses essentially the same technology as Millitech's, though it is somewhat larger in size and employs lower frequency signals.
VORAD's first customer was Greyhound, which decided in 1992 to mount the system on its entire fleet of buses. That has put the radar through more than 250 million miles of road testing, notes VORAD's President Paul Bouchard. The system Mr. Bouchard's company offers for large commercial vehicles, trucks as well as buses, includes side- and rear-mounted antennas to cover the large blind spots that truckers and bus drivers have to deal with.
Greyhound spokeswoman Liz Dunn says the company credits the VORAD system with helping to push its ``accident ratio'' - accidents per million miles of driving - to a 25-year low last year. As of November, the company had 4.32 accidents per million miles, compared with 10.63 logged in November of '92 and 34.46 for the same month in '91.
Ms. Dunn emphasizes that improved driver training has also played a part in reducing mishaps but notes that several of Greyhound's drivers have made a point of praising the radar's performance in fog, rain, and snow.
VORAD has its eye on the passenger-car market too, but Bouchard says consumers shouldn't expect to see fully developed automotive radar - integrated with advanced cruise control and braking systems - before 1997 or '98.
Huguenin, whose company has worked with Daimler-Benz and Ford in developing its radar, expects to see collision-warning systems in new cars as early as the 1996 model year. Noting the car companies' intense concern about failure rates and potential false alarms, he says: ``We're not at the bottom line yet, but we're getting awfully close.''
Those predictions could sound a bit optimistic to some in the auto-safety field. Bill Leasure directs the Office of Crash Avoidance Research in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency. When people first hear about a new technology, they tend to assume something will be on the market in a couple of years, he says. ``However, history tells us it's usually more like 20 years.''
Applying radar technology to ground transportation presents unique challenges, Mr. Leasure says. Lots of things - stationary guard rails and trees as well as other cars - are ``approaching'' a vehicle. The task of engineering a machine that will sort out the different images and not issue a lot of false alarms is complex, he says.
BOUCHARD seconds that, commenting that his company has been at work on the problem for about a decade. The VORAD system can ``target'' more than 20 objects and ``assign software trackers to the nearest three,'' he says. The unit processes that information and triggers a warning if it senses a collision. And the audible collision warning is ``conspicuously different'' from the other warning sounds drivers are getting used to in their increasingly digitized vehicles.
Leasure also points out that millimeter-wave technology is only one of several options for collision-avoidance radar systems. Some companies are working with infrared or ultrasound technology, and others are experimenting with laser devices. The millimeter-wave systems are the front-runners, he says. They tend to work the best in foggy or snowy conditions, but they also tend to be expensive.
Huguenin acknowledges price has been a constant concern. He remembers jokes by colleagues about buying your radar and getting a Cadillac thrown in. He estimates that the price of a radar option on a high-end car model - where the radars will most likely first appear - will be comparable to that of a sun roof, in the range of $1,200. Bouchard, however, foresees the price dropping as low as $300 to $500.
The radars, along with automatic braking systems and intelligent, or adaptive, cruise control, will help usher in the age of ``intelligent vehicle highway systems,'' as the broader field - which includes navigational aids and guidance systems actually built into roadways - is generally known.
``These devices will kind of turn us all into passengers,'' Leasure says, noting that many people tend to be more on edge when someone else is driving than when they're at the wheel themselves. ``We'll have to convince people that these little computers are better than their brains.''