Futuristic Driving, Highways on Display

Article excerpt

Suppose driverless cars buzzed the Beltway, and cameras monitored every vehicle, including firetrucks and police cruisers.

What if cars had computers costing as much as a house and could track the location and destination to lay out routes allowing the driver not to get lost? Imagine snow-removal trucks guided by satellites speeding to your neighborhood, automatically spraying a specific mix of sand or salt solution, based on temperature data sent by road sensors to a computer in the plow.

Washington-area exhibitors this week have these high-tech dreams and are showing off the latest transportation technology to 7,000 state officials and policy-makers attending the world's largest meeting of transportation researchers.

"Technology is not the panacea. It's not even a silver bullet, but in some senses it is the answer," said J. Peter Kissinger, an attendant of the Transportation Research Board's 77th annual meeting, which started Sunday and ends tomorrow.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater is the featured speaker at a luncheon today.

In an exhibit hall at the Sheraton Washington Hotel in Woodley Park, Human Factors, a McLean research company, displayed an $800,000 Pontiac Bonneville weighed down by 800 pounds of computers and five liquid-crystal-display video monitors showing real-time maps and roadway information.

W. Spencer James, lead researcher for that project, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration, said the car will be used to test how drivers react to the gadgetry.

The car, tracked by satellites, already has been tested on the Beltway and around Washington. The next step is hooking up a test driver to check blood pressure, heart rate and "galvanic skin response," otherwise known as sweat.

"We have to make sure it doesn't overload the driver or distract the driver," said Richard Hobbins, programmer for the project.

Montgomery County showed off its $18 million bus-tracking system, which costs $2 million a year to operate.

Bill Corder, the county's senior engineering technician for transportation, said the system, which controls traffic cameras and coordinates the county's 700 traffic signals since 1992, has helped ease traffic and improve response time for police to get to accidents. …