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8 minute read
Michael Krantz/Chelsea

The Grand Cherokee wends its lazy way along the gently curving road, cruising at 25 m.p.h. through rural Michigan’s autumnal landscape of gold-and-orange-dappled trees. I’m reclining in the rear of the car with Jeff Zyburt, a Chrysler project manager. As we chat, the Jeep changes lanes from smooth asphalt to rough cobblestone, which sets us passengers bouncing around in the back seat.

And who’s steering the car? Nobody. In the front, where the driver should be, is a hulking metal contraption that looks like an out-of-place engine part. It is bolted to the Jeep’s brake pedal, accelerator and steering wheel. Thick cables connect it to the computer that occupies the passenger seat. This vehicle is, essentially, a Jeep-shaped robot.

Someday, say the futurists, our streets will be filled with computer-controlled cars so “smart” they will make the prototype I’m riding in look like a brain-damaged Model T. These high-IQ roadsters will, perhaps within our lifetime, speed down smart highways under their own command, turning drivers into passengers, saving billions of dollars and transforming commuters’ lives in the process.

This vision from around the technological bend has, in various forms, preoccupied the automotive industry for decades. The basic idea is always the same. Proponents imagine a morning someday in the next century when you and your smart car pull out of the garage, drive down local roads in the conventional manner and head for the “smartway.” There you will merge into the auto lanes, activate your robo-driver and relax. The car will hurtle along at high speed–perhaps up to 140 m.p.h.–only a few feet from the cars in front and behind but protected by collision-avoidance radar and automatic brakes, with guidance coils on either side steering it down the center of the lane. You, meanwhile, can recline your seat, pop in some Mozart and close your eyes. A network of satellite-linked computer systems will guide you safely to your exit, at which point you will resume control and drive yourself to your final destination.

It’s a system that–at least in theory–combines the flexibility and independence of private cars with the economy of public transportation. “It gives you the freedom to travel comfortably and safely in your own vehicle and at the same time be able to watch movies, read or catch up on paperwork,” says Edward Mertz, general manager of General Motors’ Buick division.

Utopian fantasy? Perhaps. But if so, it’s a well-funded one. The U.S. Department of Transportation spends more than $1 billion a year on research and development for intelligent highway systems and improved traffic-management programs, and the Japanese may be spending even more. The U.S. government’s Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act calls for the dot to develop an automated highway prototype by 2002. Japan’s Intelligent Transportation System master plan calls for fully automated cars to be plying the island nation’s dreadfully gridlocked roadways by the year 2010.

Meanwhile, virtually every major automaker is spending heavily to make the dream come true. Chrysler has the 1.3-mile-long test bed I’m bouncing along in Chelsea, Michigan. General Motors is outfitting a convoy of 10 Buick LeSabres that are scheduled to make a test run next year on a modified stretch of I-15 outside San Diego. Five leading Japanese automakers, meanwhile, are members of a government-led consortium that turned a four-mile stretch of new expressway near the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics into a smartway proving ground.

Their enthusiasm makes some sense. Smart highways, with their mechanized legions of cars racing along in perfect, synchronized formation, should have fewer accidents and produce less pollution than today’s freewheeling freeways. And it may be cheaper to make today’s highways smart enough to carry heavier traffic loads than to build new railroads or monorails from scratch.

What’s more, much of the equipment needed to make this Jetsons vision real, from cruise control to automatic suspension and antilock brakes, from vehicle-detection radar to dashboard navigation systems, already resides in industry catalogs. GM, for instance, is offering limited radar-based obstacle-detection systems in school buses. GM and Ford now equip their high-end cars with devices that call for emergency help after a crash. And some 4% of all new vehicles are expected to come equipped with onboard navigation systems that can tell drivers where they are by reading an onboard electronic map or the signals from a global positioning satellite system.

But the next step–letting computer systems actually pilot the car–is the big one. Getting in and out of the fast lanes is always tricky even today. It will be even trickier when you have to change lanes and hand off control to the computer at the same time. Making the transition to true no-hands smart roads, says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan’s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, is an engineering challenge that will probably take another 20 years to complete. Even then the fledgling industry will face the daunting task of merging these automated cars with highways already jammed with road hogs, drunk drivers and teenagers who think they’re immortal.

What happens when a deer jumps onto the smartway? What if a driver in the auto lane decides to step on the brakes? What if a computer crashes? Do all the cars follow suit? And then whom do you sue–the driver, the carmaker or the programmer? “With all that can go wrong,” asked Chrysler chairman Robert Eaton in a speech in Dearborn, Michigan, last week, expressing some of the industry’s concerns, “will we all spend the rest of our lives in court?”

There are, no doubt, engineering solutions for most of these problems. Honda, for example, claims its automated driving system can safely reduce the gap between vehicles traveling 35 m.p.h. to 6 ft. while retaining a 3-ft. margin of safety. But margins of safety are in the eye of the beholder, as Chrysler’s Zyburt and I discover about halfway around one of the track’s cobblestone lanes. “This is where it gets rough on our test drivers,” he warns me, just as, on cue, the Jeep slams to a halt, throwing us painfully against our seat belts. “Oops,” Zyburt says sheepishly. He has accidentally bumped into the system-override “kill” button set in the back seat. If this had been a real smartway, we might have found ourselves at the business end of a multicar pileup.

In any system this complex, software glitches are inevitable, as a Japanese Ministry of Construction fact sheet acknowledges. “When any anomaly occurs with running vehicle,” the memo explains, “a warning is generated and vehicle operation changes from automated mode to manual mode.” O.K., but what if you and the kids are playing Scrabble in the back of the camper van when that anomaly hits? You’re traveling at highway speeds, and you have 1.5 seconds to bring the van under control before impact. Good luck.

Chrysler, for one, seems to have accepted the technology’s limitations. Their smartway prototype–with a wire embedded in each lane to give the cars a reference point–is intended only as a test bed for putting the bodies and chassis of new cars through their paces. Chrysler figures the track can cut the time it takes to simulate the punishment the average car undergoes in 100,000 miles from six weeks to two. For the foreseeable future, however, the company doesn’t plan to transfer its technology from the lab to the open road. “This stuff is not ready for Mr. and Mrs. America out on the highway,” says Bernard Robertson, Chrysler’s v.p. of engineering technologies.

There’s plenty of smart-car technology that is ready, however, and Japanese automakers are better positioned to bring it to market than their American competitors. While the U.S. has focused on the conduits, pouring tens of millions into advanced smart-highway systems, Japan has kept its eyes on nearer-term prizes, making its cars intelligent by adding one on-board feature at a time. It’s an approach that could add value to the cars–and reap healthy profits for their makers–for decades to come, whether or not the smart highway arrives on schedule.

Sales of Japanese cars equipped with cd-rom and satellite navigation systems are already surging–from 306,000 in 1994 to a projected 750,000 this year. Electronics and software account for 20% of the sticker price of today’s new models, up from 5% less than 30 years ago. By 2005, a government advisory panel predicted this spring, Japan’s market for information equipment in automobiles will be worth $6.2 billion annually.

Even if the smart highway never arrives and we have to drive ourselves to work indefinitely, it is likely that we’ll be supported by an array of sophisticated gadgetry that would dazzle Henry Ford. One antidrowsiness system developed by Nissan, for instance, uses a video camera mounted on the instrument panel to count the frequency and duration of the driver’s blinks to determine if he or she is getting dangerously sleepy. To rouse a dozing driver, the system sounds an electronic beeper while a disembodied female voice advises the driver to “please take a rest.” Meanwhile, a blast of lemon-and-menthol-scented odorizer fills the air. Throw in some steamed milk and a couple of shots of espresso, and these guys might really be on to something.

–With reporting by Robin Elsham/Komoro and Joseph R. Szczesny/Detroit

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