For the automotive-industry executive, the evening's main event was a real eye-opener.
He was one of several corner-office types who had come out on an ink-black night in late 1997 for a demonstration of night-vision technology by the US Army's Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, Mich.
"We had a vehicle coming at him with glaring headlights, and he was able to use the night vision and stay on the road - and even see a deer off to the side," recalls Dennis Wend, director of TACOM's National Automotive Center. "It was just utter amazement. It was like 'I can see!' "
That experience highlights what's becoming a boon for car buyers and manufacturers alike. It's the kind of revelation that's likely to occur with increasing frequency, and not just in the driver's seat.
The Army's still not saying who that gray-suited executive was. But last year, General Motors rolled out its Cadillac DeVille DTS - with thermal-imaging equipment developed with Raytheon and the government.
And just last month, DaimlerChrysler unveiled a prototype night-vision system that uses infrared lasers to spot road hazards.
More and more, people like Mr. Wend are helping to transfer specialized, battle-tested military technology to automakers. Closer collaboration is yielding more "dual use" hybrid products. The most obvious barrier, cost, is being worn down by economies of scale. That means car buyers hungry for innovation and willing to pay for it will find what they're looking for in showrooms.
Take the flat-panel display - developed for armored vehicles and available in luxury cars today. It eliminates the need for gauges, projecting information for a "heads up" read. On the horizon, says Wend: "multimedia databuses" that could further ease the way drivers get the information they need.
"We have a program under way with Chrysler and Ford right now to look at [using military technology in] several types of sport trucks," he says. The commercial-based tactical truck program (COMBATT) will ultimately offer suspensions that are adjustable in transit, for example, to Dodge Ram and Ford F-350 trucks.
Many past military contributions to the automotive industry are so basic - strong, lightweight materials, advanced off-road suspension - that representatives on both the military and automotive sides tend to skip past them to focus on what's hot today.
Consider advanced brake-control systems, central tire inflation, radar-based collision-avoidance systems, and "intelligent" cruise control.
Parallel progress in digital communications (story, left) hints that there will be no looking back.
Soon, "a traveler might conduct what is known to the military as a 'mission rehearsal' prior to starting a trip, through Internet-provided information," predicts Lou Jakub, chief of the Army Communications-Electronics Command Research Development and Engineering Center's Technology Transfer Office in Fort Monmouth, N.J.
"He might be updated enroute [regarding] local points of interest, review alternate-route information during travel, based on weather or traffic conditions, [even] pay tolls upon returning home," says Mr. Jakub. Already, automated toll-takers exist that can be used in multiple states, where once they were linked only to "assigned" systems.
But if military advances have left deep treadmarks on civilian life, in some sectors it is the civilian-to-military flow that has been smoother.
"A lot of communications technology has come from government development in the past, although the tide has turned in some regards [because of high costs]. A lot of what we do now is bringing COTS, commercial off-the-shelf, systems to the government," says Robert Dutton, vice president and general manager for Trusted Network Solutions at General Dynamics Communication Systems in Needham Heights, Mass.
The automotive realm, counters Wend, offers a different scenario. "In the military environment, where I put something out and it's got to go over potholes and other kinds of things, taking off-the-shelf and modifying it doesn't work too well."
Wend says "militarizing" commercial products is successful only about 10 percent of the time. "Instead, I work on a need and then build the military requirements into the commercial product. We do tradeoffs in the R&D stage. And I get a commercial product that works for the military needs."
Not all projects seemed destined for quick advancement. A team of researchers at the University of Delaware, including George C. Hadjipanayis and John Q. Xiao, have been working with magnetic materials to replace bulky hydraulics systems in cars and airplanes. It's been a five-year process.
"We are developing advanced magnetic materials for the Air Force to be used in a next-generation electric vehicle," says Dr. Xiao. "But I don't find them useful in civilian industry, since the materials are too expensive."
"The DOD has been transferring technology to the private sector at least since Thomas Edison helped the Navy create a research laboratory in the early 1900s," said Lance A. Davis, the deputy director at the Department of Defense charged with technology transfer, in an address to a Senate subcommittee in March 1998.
For Wend, the best example of something that dramatically changed the way the military and the commercial sectors do business is a databus called the J-1939, built recently by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Previously, the military and civilian sectors each had their own versions.
The Stevenson-Wydler Act of 1980 called on federal researchers to seek ways of transferring technology to their civilian counterparts. Six years later, the Federal Technology Transfer Act opened the way for the formation of a range of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAS), between federal labs and private facilities.
More than 1,000 CRADAS now exist, along with such government initiatives as the Dual Use Science and Technology Program.
Benefits stand to be widely felt. "We're working on hybrid-vehicle technology with Volvo," says Wend. "The engine charges a battery, the battery does electric drive, improving fuel economy by 35 percent, and also making the vehicle a generator, creating 100 to 150 kilowatts of power." (A typical house might use five kilowatts in a summer day.)
One key to more such triumphs, civilian and military experts all say, is keeping the process the two-way street it has long been.
"It's important for both the military and commercial partners to be involved," Wend says. "Because you never know who's going to have the next 'best thing.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society