THE sleek two-seater merges into the freeway traffic and nudges its way over to the express lane.
Settling into the flow of Monday morning rush hour, the driver slips his hands off the steering wheel, reaches into his briefcase, and pulls out the morning paper. Opening to the sports section, he settles back to read as the car races along at a comfortable 100 miles an hour.
A scenario for disaster? Certainly, on today's highways. But sometime in the not-too-distant future, this may be a perfectly common sight.
Known as Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) or "smart cars, smart highways," advanced electronics in tomorrow's automobiles could vastly improve the "productivity" of highways around the world, visionaries say. Such systems could pack more cars on densely-crowded roadways, improve fuel economy, and reduce highway fatalities.
The largest-scale IVHS system now in use is Berlin's Ali-Scout - produced by Siemens AG as a navigation aid.
"Get in the right hand lane," the male, faintly metallic-sounding voice drones from a hidden speaker. "Make a left turn," it commands, an arrow echoing the order on a small video screen mounted on the dashboard. "You have reached your destination," the voice concludes, as the hotel comes into view.
Installed in a fleet of 700 Berlin vehicles, Ali-Scout Uses a combination of visual cues and verbal warnings to warn motorists of traffic tie-ups, or guide them to unfamiliar destinations.
Ali-Scout's in-car hardware is linked by infrared signal to 2,000 "beacons" around the city. In turn, they are tied to a central traffic monitoring station where a mainframe computer digests information about city road conditions. Should a main artery be blocked by an accident, the system will automatically detour Ali-Scout cars onto alternate routes.
The first IVHS program in the United States is Project Pathfinder, which will soon go into use along a 10-mile stretch of California's crowded Santa Monica Freeway. The cars used in the Pathfinder experiment will be equipped with a video map capable of displaying all local roads in precise detail. Should there be a tie-up, an alternate route will be highlighted on the dashboard-mounted video screen.
Although Ali-Scout and Pathfinder offer little more than route guidance, future IVHS systems will take on more responsibilities. Chrysler's Millenium concept vehicle uses TV cameras to eliminate blind spots, and its radar-controlled collision avoidance system can actually slam on the brakes before a driver would react. …