The sleek two-seater merges into the dense freeway traffic, nudging into the express lane.
Settling into the flow of Monday morning rush hour, the driver slips her hands off the steering wheel, pulls out the morning paper and settles back to read as her car races along at 100 miles per hour.
A scenario for disaster? Certainly on today's highways. But by the mid-21st century, this may be a perfectly common sight. Or so goes the vision of highway and automotive planners in the United States. America has been shaped in the image of the automobile. But with nearly two cars for every three people, it's approaching coast-to-coast gridlock.
"It costs a lot of money to put in new highways," and even where money's available, there's growing opposition to building new roads, says Joe Ligas, director of Project ADVANCE, a pilot "smart car" program that recently began operating in suburban Chicago. "We're looking for a way to expand the capacity of existing roadways at a minimal cost."
The federal government has authorized a national smart-car program that could be in place within a decade. It would create an intelligent highway system in as many as 75 major US cities. They're likely to look a lot like ADVANCE. Vehicles participating in the program are equipped with on-board navigation computers. Punch in a destination, and the system automatically plots out the best route. If there's a tie-up along the way, the regional center radios an alert, and the car's computer plots an alternate route.
The ultimate goal is an intelligent automobile that could actually drive itself. Researchers at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University have developed a prototype that often cruises local roadways. There's still a "passenger," capable of taking control in an emergency, but the vehicle's vision system can read and respond to highway markings and road signs.
Electronics is revolutionizing the industry, says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The changes often come in ways consumers can't see, such as how vehicles are designed.
"As we do more virtual engineering [designing cars on computer screens] we collapse the time it takes to develop new products and profoundly influence everything from cost to safety," Dr. Cole explains.
General Motors Corp., for example, hopes to cut its "lead time" to bring out a new car in half, to barely two years, using electronic design systems.
Ford is introducing technology that will permit designers and engineers to "virtually collocate," to work on a computer design simultaneously, even if they're sitting in offices halfway around the world from each other.
Ford is developing new holographic systems that will project three-dimensional images, much like those in the "Star Wars" movies and Star Trek TV series.
Eventually, says Ford 3-D chief Tom Scott, holographic systems will display images appearing to hover in midair. Sensors will allow designers and engineers to "touch" these projections to round corners, sculpt a fender or remove a part.
Engineers already can run products designed entirely on a CAD screen through "virtual" wind tunnels and crash tests. The results are uncannily close to what happens when "hard" prototypes are built and put through real testing.
"Throughout history," Mr. Scott says, "man's imagination has only been limited by his technology. Today, his technology is limited only by his imagination."
Technology is changing virtually every aspect of the automobile business, notes Mark Thimmig of the consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand in Detroit.
"The most significant changes will come in the way cars are distributed from the manufacturer to consumers," he notes.
Tens of thousands of cars already are being sold on the Internet, and a growing number of dealers have installed self-serve video kiosks, where customers can spec out the vehicles they're interested in. When they're done, all they have to do is hand a printout to the salesperson - and dicker over price.
Eventually, Scott says, you'll be able to walk into a showroom, punch a few keys at a kiosk, and a customized, life-size 3-D image of the car you're looking for will appear in the middle of the room.
To explore the limits of technology, the Big Three US carmakers have created the USCAR research consortium with the federal government. One of its most far-reaching projects is the Supercar program. Borrowing technology developed at Sandia and other formerly top-secret US defense labs, researchers are probing the limits of safety, fuel economy, and new materials.
The goal is to triple the mileage of today's typical family sedan - now about 28.5 miles per gallon - significantly improve safety, produce virtually no emissions, and do it all at a cost equivalent to what one would pay today for a car like the Ford Taurus, about $20,000. It's no easy task, but researchers say they could have a prototype on the road in five to eight years, with the first Supercar in production by 2005.