IF you haven't been in a new car lately, you might want to take a look at the dashboard of the new Chevrolet Corvette or Berlinetta - or any other racy new car now making tracks on the road.
Electronics is arriving in new cars with a vengeance, and cars aren't likely to be the same again.
Large numbers tell the exact miles or kilometers per hour at the flick of a switch. Numbers also quickly tell the exact temperature of the radiator coolant or oil. Numbers also tell the amount of fuel in the tank, in either gallons or liters, and how far you can go on the fuel still left in the tank.
All of this is appearing on some car lines now and will likely spread even more in the coming years.
Jerome Rivard, chief engineer in Ford's electrical and electronics division, says the carmaker's fourth-generation electronic engine control, EEC-IV, is now on two-thirds of all Ford products. EEC-IV is essentially a 16-bit microprocessor with a companion memory chip and is made with high-performance metal-oxide semiconductor technology, Mr. Rivard explains.
On the 1984 Continental Mark VII, he says, the instrument cluster uses two colors, blue and yellow, in a vacuum-fluorescent display, showing the speed, fuel, and mileage. But it also contains extensive self-diagnostics, including memory-retention, to pick up intermittent problems.
Electronics is reaching into areas that the original Henry Ford, a nonstop tinkerer to the end, would be delighted with.
On the new Mark VII and Continental, Ford uses a four-wheel electronically controlled air suspension which works to smooth out the ride and control the headlight aim regardless of how the vehicle is loaded. In other words, even if the trunk is filled with scrap metal, the electronics controlling the suspension keeps the car level and the headlights even.
At the same time, the ride frequency, or harmonics of how the car bounces with respect to the road, are virtually independent of the load and its distribution, according to Rivard.
Perhaps the last word in today's electronics is found on the '85 Cadillac Fleetwoods and DeVilles. The cars have two computers, not one, and they ''talk'' to each other. In addition to the basic electronic control module that runs the engine, the new downsized GM C-body cars have a body-control module.
The engine computer monitors and controls 14 separate engine functions, such as spark and idle speed, air compressor, and the like. The body computer provides 13 major functions, controlling the heat, ventilation, and air conditioning, and, by communication with the engine-control computer, it adjusts the air-conditioning compressor to fit engine demands.
It disengages the air-conditioning compressor, for example, when the throttle is wide open to maximize engine power. The two cooling fans for the Cadillac engines are controlled by the body computer module as well.
Don't be dismayed by all the glitz and glitter, however. Most of the auto companies, after an initial foray into the talking-car game, have deftly backed out of that now.
If you tire of hearing the car say, ''Buckle your seat belts, please,'' or ''A door is ajar,'' there is, in most cases, an easy disconnect switch. For most mechanics it's a simple two-minute job to take the talk out of the car.