Here Comes The Thinking Car

It's 6:30 a.m. in a strange city, there's a downpour outside, and you face a long trip. You flip on your hotel TV, type your destination onto a keypad, and up comes an electronic map. In your car, you get the same map on the dashboard screen, and a voice directs you to the freeway. During the next hour, your on-board computer regularly updates your location on the display. The car's collision avoidance system warns that you're following the next vehicle too closely. And once you're off the highway, the voice guides you to your local stop.

It isn't The Jetsons or a world's fair, but it may be the U.S. circa 2000. To be sure, there are daunting obstacles to overcome. Still, using technology gleaned from air-traffic-control towers and smart-bomb guidance systems, engineers already are testing these and other ways to improve safety and cut traffic snarls without building new roads.

Enticed by some $659 million Washington plans to spend over the next six years on smart highway technologies, Lockheed Corp. has just joined with American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to create new traffic-management systems. Dozens of others, including GM's Hughes Aircraft unit, Westinghouse, and TRW, want to supply everything from digital maps to collision-avoidance radars. GM, Ford, Chrysler, and Motorola plan to bid on a five-year, federally sponsored automated-highway test project that could cost millions more. Eventually, any widespread effort to adopt all this "would be bigger than the interstate highway program," enthuses William A. Spreitzer, who heads smart-highway research at General Motors Corp.

FAST LANE. Indeed, this grand scheme envisions a new infrastructure of sensors, TV cameras, radars, and other gear that will monitor city traffic and relay what's happening to central computers. From workstations at command headquarters, technicians will alter freeway signals and stoplights to reroute traffic. They'll also relay advisories to cars equipped with sophisticated navigation systems. The technology may even help organize high-speed trains of cars, giving life in the fast lane a new cachet.

To create such systems countrywide will cost billions, and that isn't the only hurdle. Consumers may balk at electronic-toll schemes and other systems that, as a byproduct, track everyone's movements. "You need to build privacy into the system with the same protections that now exist for telephone communication," says University of Michigan law professor Kent R. Syverud. It's also unclear whether smart systems could handle millions of cars. "If you instruct 100,000 cars to exit at Brookhurst, that could be a problem," says Joseph Capobianco, a group vice president who heads diversification efforts at Hughes.

Still, the infusion of public money is about to get the idea rolling. This fiscal year, the Federal Highway Administration is spending $234 million to develop so-called Intelligent Vehicle"/Highway Systems (IVHS). That's up from $20 million in 1991. "What's been lacking is an impetus from the government," says John Vostrez, a director at IVHS America, a Washington-based trade group. "Now, that's falling into place."

Within a few weeks, California expects to adopt technical standards for electronic systems for seven new toll roads. That could open the market for a new system from Lockheed and AT&T. As a car speeds under a scanner, the system would debit the toll from the driver's account. California is also testing trains of four cars on a freeway north of San Diego. Engineers foresee clusters of up to 25 cars, equipped with computers that control braking and steering. The technology is within "striking distance," says Hughes's Capobianco, though the threat of liability suits ultimately could quash the idea.

Work on a national system will start later this year, when the Transportation Dept. awards up to $20 million in contracts to design the technical foundation. Hughes, for instance, is pushing a radio communications technique--called spread-spectrum radio--now used for military communications. And Rockwell International Corp., Hughes, and others are developing systems using the same microprocessors and image-processing software that direct smart bombs to their targets. Under these schemes, an accident would alert traffic controllers, who would scope out the damage via TV cameras and redirect drivers.

BUS BUZZERS. Even before large systems take shape, Greyhound Lines Inc. expects to outfit its buses with collision-avoidance radar from VORAD Safety Systems Inc., a small San Diego company. When another vehicle gets too close, a warning light and buzzer alert the driver. Within the next two years, auto makers expect to introduce intelligent cruise controls that adjust a car's speed to the one ahead. Myriad other products are on the drawing board, too. Etak Inc., a Menlo Park (Calif.) company that makes digital maps for navigation systems, is compiling electronic yellow pages for car computers. In Japan, Pioneer Electronic Corp. has just unveiled a system with a built-in CD player that includes video entertainment, quizzes, and karaoke. "The value-added market is undreamed of at this time," says Donald E. Orne, director of California's Partners for Advanced Transit & Highways, a research consortium in Richmond, Calif.

For now, American companies trail foreign producers. Some 400,000 cars in Japan already have navigation systems. A consortium led by electronics manufacturers Siemens and Robert Bosch plans to expand a small network of radio transmitters to encompass Berlin's main streets and highways. These will beam road conditions and instructions from a traffic center, plus receive data on the location of cars to provide an overall traffic picture. In London, meanwhile, drivers can pay $33 a month for a service that displays traffic snarls within a 30-mile radius on a small electronic map. This system may be bound for the U.S. through a joint venture between Westinghouse Electric Corp. and General Logistics PLC., which developed London's Trafficmaster system.

U.S. producers are driving to catch up. This summer, GM and Motorola will start equipping 5,000 cars with satellite-based navigation gear for a $35 million test program, called Advance, near Chicago. "There's nothing as ambitious as Advance in Europe," says Ian Catling, who is coordinating a European Community auto-navigation project called SOCRATES. Talk about manifest destiny. The U.S. has the most cars in the world, the most paved roads, and one day it may have the smartest highways, too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.