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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Technology : Designers Steer Toward Greater Safety, Efficiency : One expert envisions vehicles relying far more on electronics. Another hopes low-pollution models will be status symbols. In any case, change is on the horizon.

March 01, 1994|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the year 2003. With public transportation as slow and unreliable as ever, you're still driving to work. But you've decided to make the daily commute a little more pleasant by junking the old 1994 Ford Taurus and buying a fully loaded Chrysler sports coupe. You liked the Toyota, but it was twice as expensive.

When you unlock the door, the seats and mirrors automatically adjust to your favorite position. You turn the ignition and the engine purrs.

The coupe is the same size as your old car but somehow roomier. The dashboard looks about the same except for the liquid crystal display of the on-board computer that flashes maps, maintenance information and electronic mail.

As you put the car into reverse to back out of the driveway, the little screen displays a picture of the sidewalk and road behind you. A small video camera above the rear license plate is scanning the area for cars and pedestrians. The way is clear, so you pull out and drive away.

You have an appointment across town, but you don't know the way. Push the navigator button on your display and, enunciating clearly, give the address of your destination. A voice recognition system picks up the address, searches its database and flips through a CD-ROM filled with maps of the area. Almost instantaneously, a map appears on the display and, with data from a satellite signal, the computer indicates the exact location of your car with a red dot that moves as you move. A blue line shows the best road to take to avoid traffic.

Pulling onto the freeway and putting the car on cruise control, you let your eyes drift to the horizon, where white clouds are floating lazily by. Beep! Your forward laser-based radar system is warning that the truck ahead of you is suddenly slowing and you're dangerously close. You step on the brakes, your heart pumping at the close call.

It is a close call, and you're glad you went with the eight-tire option along with the standard anti-skid brakes.

Engineers have known for years that while highly pressurized tires drive the most efficiently, soft tires are better for braking. Only recently did they begin offering cars with four double tires that use a set of highly pressurized inner tires for efficient high-speed driving. When you brake, the computerized suspension system puts the additional four soft tires on the road for extra gripping power. The extra wheels also help grab the road for sharp cornering.

Nevertheless, still flustered, you decide to move over to the slow lane. As you try to turn your wheel, it stiffens and there is another beep, this time from the side sensor. A picture comes up on your display showing a little sports car driving alongside you in a blind spot your mirrors hadn't picked up. You wait for the car to pass, pull off the freeway and take a breather.

If this sounds futuristic, it is. But the technology for this experience is already available. And safety will become an increasingly critical factor in the design of tomorrow's cars.

*

Less certain is the extent to which heightened environmental consciousness and energy concerns will force a radical change in the engines and materials of 21-Century automobiles. The expert consensus is that they won't.

"Most changes will be evolutionary," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. The institute recently completed a three-volume study of how cars will change over the next 10 years.

Based on the views of a wide range of industry experts, it concludes that cars will get about 8% lighter as a result of the introduction of more plastics, aluminum and steel alloys. Average mileage will climb to about 32 miles a gallon.

The biggest changes will be in electronics, Cole says. He predicts 20% of the car's value will be represented by the electronic system, up from about 11% today. Microprocessors will be connected by wire or radio to sensors throughout the car to operate the warning systems, measure tire pressure, check gasoline levels and control the standard air bags (front and back seat) and anti-lock brakes.

There is an alternative view on where the car is headed, and how fast. Critics of Detroit's conventional wisdom predict another external shock that will force changes on the industry, just as the oil shock forced Detroit to build smaller, more efficient cars in the early 1970s. It could be new federal regulations concerning pollution, or it could be another energy crisis.

That's the kind of future that designer Michael Seal has in mind. As director of Western Washington University's Vehicle Research Center, he works with his students building state-of-the-art technology into experimental cars. He hopes clean, efficient cars will be a status symbol of the 21st Century.

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