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One day you'll sit in your car and it will chauffeur you on its own to your destination. Communication among sensors and processors, embedded not only in vehicles but in roads, signs, and guard rails, is expected to let cars race along practically bumper to bumper at speeds above 100 km/h while you snooze, read, or watch television.

In the meantime, systems that give automobiles the ability to sense and avoid the vehicles ahead of them are already on the road, thanks to adaptive cruise control options offered in luxury cars. These automatically govern braking and open or close the throttle in order to maintain a one- or two-second interval of separation between cars. One system manufacturer, for instance, has developed a prototype adaptive cruise control system that, on congested highways, will adjust a car's speed as traffic creeps along--and even bring it to a complete stop if need be. Researchers are also at work on so-called cooperative adaptive cruise control with which cars can "talk" to each other by frequently broadcasting information about their speed and acceleration via radio signals.

While improved car designs and safety devices such as air bags and seat belts have lowered the number of fatalities resulting from crashes, engineers are now using advanced microprocessors, radar, lasers, and signal processing algorithms to achieve the ultimate solution for saving lives and property: keeping cars from smashing into each other in the first place.

Contact: Willie D. Jones, 212 419 7564, [email protected].

For faxed copies of the complete article ("Keeping Cars from Crashing" by Willie D. Jones, Assistant Editor, IEEE Spectrum, September 2001, pp. 40-45) or to arrange an interview, contact: Nancy T. Hantman, 212 419 7561, [email protected].