Reliance on strong yet lightweight components and aerodynamic styling ''is bringing the auto industry much closer to outer space,'' according to former astronaut Donald K. (Deke) Slayton.
Just as today's space shuttle is sensitive to weight, so the goal of the auto industry is to make cars more ''payload sensitive,'' or in the words of automotive stylists and engineers, ''more fuel-efficient.''
The result: Cars today are sharply lighter in weight than they were, say, in the 1960s and get double the mileage on a tankful of fuel.
To accomplish this end, ''engineering costs have doubled because we had to throw away all the old technology,'' reports Chrysler chairman Lee A. Iacocca.
''There are no more carburetors, but everything is fuel injection, new materials, electronics that won't quit in running the car, vehicles that talk, and changes in the way fuel is handled. It's been a revolution, and we're not done yet.''
About twice as much engineering goes into a car today as was the norm a decade ago. Instead of styling changes every year, ''the money is going where it should go - into engineering,'' asserts Mr. Iacocca.
Again like the space shuttle, today's new cars rely on sophisticated space-age electronics and computers to monitor and control a growing range of functions. Computers process thousands of instructions each operating second, controlling such vital functions as spark timing, idle speed, fuel delivery, and automatic clutch.
Computers also are used to regulate the comfort and entertainment features inside a car.
Speaking of the rapid advances in computer technology as it applies to cars, General Motors president F. James McDonald says: ''A 1986 vehicle will have seven computers aboard and will digest 38,000 instructions compared to 8,000 today.''
But far more is on the way, according to John D. Withrow Jr., executive vice-president of product development for Chrysler.
''Today we have individual computers at each point in the car where you use electronic controls. We'll soon be seeing perhaps one computer to control the overall engine with a simpler kind of wiring controls in which, at each point, there will be an actuator that has some level of intelligence. The actuator will pick up the signal from the primary computer and do what it needs to do, as opposed to having computers clustered all around the car,'' explains Withrow.
''What we're talking about for the future are two or three computers in a car (compared with GM's seven in 1986), with multiplex wiring going to the rest of the parts of the car with smart actuators wherever you might want them.''
The big advantage, he adds, is the cost, a critical factor in the auto industry.
As for instrument panels, ''I don't think our customers are interested in instrument clusters that are Atari games,'' he adds. ''There is no sense in giving information for the display's sake. Information should be there because it's valuable to the driver of the car. Up to now we've tended to make them entertainment centers.''
A lot of things start out like a fad, but the faddishness will go away and the intrinsic value will stay. ''The value is there when we can give the customer as good or better information than he could get with the old mechanical dials at equal or lesser cost,'' says Mr. Withrow.
What is happening in car electronics is similar to what has been happening to computers in the last 30 years.
Auto-industry engineers say that without computers they could never get the emissions, fuel economy, drivability, and performance of today's cars.
Reliability, of course, had been a problem, but that is attributed to ''growing pains.''
''Putting the intelligence in a little chip which, once it's made, has no moving parts, will be much more reliable than putting it into 16 belt cranks and 14 springs because that little baby isn't going to wear out,'' Mr. Withrow says.
Once the chip is sitting in one spot, it's then telling the fuel injector, which has a little smart actuator at the end of it, when to inject the fuel. It tells the transmission when to shift, how much gas recirculation it wants at a particular moment, and all the other things based upon the sensing of the coolant, engine temperature, ambient air temperature and pressure, and so on.
The automobile industry will never be the same. Technology won't let it.