In the sci-fi movie “Minority Report” cars drive themselves, maneuvering unaided through traffic. Though the film represents a more distant future, amazing cars like these could be parked in your garage as early as 2020.

Imagine making the 230-mile trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in tomorrow’s “smart” car. You hop in your car, tell it your destination, and off you go. Traveling on an automated highway system, sensors guide you in complete safety, at speeds up to 140 mph. You sit in the driver’s seat, but the car does the driving. For your part, you kick back; read a newspaper, browse the Internet, watch TV, or take a nap. In an hour and forty minutes, you arrive in LA relaxed and ready for fun.

Some of the technology necessary to make this future happen is already in our vehicles; cruise control, load-leveling, and satellite navigation. The two steps that remain – allowing computers to actually pilot the car, and developing the automated highway system – are being tested now on Interstate 5 near San Diego. Strips in the roadway are detected by sensors located in test cars, and radar feeds steering information to the car’s computer.

In the wake of the computer and information revolutions, motor vehicles are undergoing the most dramatic changes in capabilities and how they interact with drivers since the early 1900s.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is spending more than $1 billion a year to develop “human-centered” smart vehicles and intelligent highway systems. The DOT believes this technology is essential to handling the vast number of vehicles expected on tomorrow’s roads.

“Smart cars,” traveling at 140 mph, with six feet of space between cars, and protected by collision-avoidance radar, would permit up to triple the number of vehicles to use roadways safely. This high-speed/high-capacity driving technology will relieve congestion, lower pollution, reduce the need for additional highways, and save lives by eliminating accidents.

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