You wouldn't think that combat pilots on precision bombing sorties in the Middle East would have much in common with people fighting rush-hour traffic, or that space-shuttle astronauts navigating in orbit share much with a traveling salesman looking for his next stop.

Think again. When a mother hits the brakes of her child-filled van and the antilock braking system (ABS) keeps her out of harm's way, she shares technology with airplane pilots who have enjoyed the same technology for years: Pressure switches in ABS and other vehicle systems are protected from damaging chemicals by coatings that were first developed to insulate manned and unmanned satellites from the ravages of space.

Drivers will have much more in common with the "Right Stuff" people in years to come, thanks to the accelerating technology transfer taking place between aerospace and defense contractors on one hand and the auto industry on the other.

Many of the players have expertise in all three areas. TRW Inc., Rockwell International Corp. and United Technologies Corp., for example, are long-time aerospace/defense contractors as well as automotive suppliers. For years the public has reaped the benefits from government-sponsored advancements in science. Everyday household products such as Tang and Velcro came from the manned space program, and it also spawned miniaturization of computer components.

Yet many of these spinoffs - as important as they are - were incidental, if not accidental.

But with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) faced with annual Congressional budget cuts and the threat of a global Soviet bear attack gone with the fall of the Berlin Wall, companies that traditionally delivered their goods to the Pentagon or the Kennedy Space Center are looking elsewhere to peddle their technology.

Total Department of Defense (DOD) spending in 1994 was $90 billion less (in '94 dollars) than in 1989. NASA spent a mere $1 billion more in 1994 than it did in 89. And even more cutbacks are forecast. AlliedSignal Aerospace expects defense spending to continue to drop by around 5.1% annually, and NASA outlays are predicted to dip 1% per year for the foreseeable future.

Rockwell's financial statement shows the trend. In the mid-'80s, half of the company's revenues came from defense contracts, sinking to just 20% in 1994. The diversified automotive supplier in February won a $4.3-million Federal Highway Administration contract to develop an intelligent transportation system (ITS) architecture program using its space-age technology.

Indeed, ITS is a hot button for numerous aerospace/defense/electronics contractors to offset sinking federal funds, their traditional revenue source. ITS (recently changing its name from Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, or IVHS) covers a broad range of technologies aimed at a variety of tasks, from relieving traffic congestion to far-out on-board navigation systems that, among other things, one day could permit drivers to nap behind the wheel as vehicles speed toward their destinations on automated highways.

Closer in, the Clinton Administration in 1993 made the orderly transfer of advanced technology from the defense and aerospace industries to corporate America a national priority, with the goal of enhancing the nation's competitiveness in the 21st century. The initial focus is the 80-mpg (2.9L/100 km) Supercar (see GreenWatch, p.25; and EnV '95 article, p.131) with prototypes targeted for 1997-'98.

The government is pooling technology and brain power from the National Laboratories and the defense and auto industries to pursue joint research in three primary areas: advanced manufacturing; technologies to increase the efficiency of standard vehicle designs; and development of a new class of "Supercars" with up to three times more fuel efficiency than current models. President Clinton says this project is "every bit as ambitious and complex as the Apollo mission."

A key player with the government agencies in the Supercar project and others is the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) formed by the Big Three automakers in 1992 as the umbrella for shared research on technological and environmental concerns. USCAR now has a dozen different consortia focusing on everything from advanced composites and batteries to recycling and plant and vehicle emissions.

Reflecting the government's mandate to commercialize defense/space technology, NASA funds the National Technology Transfer Center (NTTC) in Wheeling, WV, and six regional centers. Its mission is to strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness through federal technology transfer. The NTTC and its satellites give industry one-stop shopping access to some 100,000 government scientists and $24 billion a year in taxpayer-funded research at some 20 National Labs and numerous other military and federal research outposts. Their diverse capabilities stretch from solar thermal energy R&D, combustion and materials sciences to laser applications, electronics reliability and robotics.

Marvin S. Stone, director of TRW's Center for Automotive Technology (CAT), which is responsible for moving technology from its aerospace business to the automotive side, says spacecraft and automobiles are very much alike because of their electronics content. "It's just that they travel on different highways," is his simple explanation.

From the perspective of high-tech defense and space manufacturers, the basic elements and construction of automobiles have remained largely unchanged since World War II, while the U.S. is now the unchallenged world leader in super computers, space and weapons technology. By applying the latest materials and manufacturing techniques, these companies believe they can bring the auto industry into the space age.

"The automotive world is last on the technology food chain," says Robert W. Schumaker, director of automotive electronics development at General Motors Corp.'s Delco Electronics Corp. The primary reason is the high cost of advanced technologies and their suitability in any case to the mass-production demands of automotive manufacturing.

Many of the best technologies such as advanced radar and composites are expensive, and it will take time for them to evolve to a point where the auto industry and its customers can afford them.

Still, the respective industries are working in the industrial trenches to lower the costs. Defense contractors, fighting for survival, and the automakers, struggling with a morass of foreign competition, government regulations and consumer demands, have ample reasons to pursue technology crossover.

In a larger context, national security depends on a strong defense industrial base capable of gearing up when the need arises.

"The defense industry is a national asset," says Gen. Earl T. O'Loughlin, retired commander of the U.S. Air Force Logistics Command. "You need the ability to surge. You can't destroy that capability to manufacture - even for spare parts. You've got to keep the capability out there."

As aerospace and defense companies move into commercial products, they're learning there's much more to it than simply lowering prices. Contractors stepping into the auto industry are discovering a whole new way of doing business in a culture that is as alien to them as the lunar surface was to the astronauts they put on the moon in 1969.

Most agree that the first "small step" is keeping development costs under control because the auto industry expects suppliers to invest in their own research. "As a defense contractor, the company lives off contracts. You never invest in R&D," says Roger A. Stevens, general manager of automotive electronics at Rockwell, which has on its aerospace resume the Apollo command module, space shuttle and supersonic B-1 bomber. "The government always gave money for development."

He says it's almost always "a disaster" to approach the auto industry with a defense mentality. "Some companies throw fantastic technology at the auto industry and ask the automakers to invest in the development of the application," he relates. "The auto industry says: `Come back when you have a practical solution."'

GM outbid Ford Motor Co. for Hughes Aircraft Co. in the mid-'80s with the idea that the aerospace industry held the key to advanced automotive technology. Much-maligned former GM Chairman Roger B. Smith gets credit for having the foresight to snap up Hughes, but right away the new partners learned the hard way about transferring technology.

"At first we rushed in with undeveloped ideas that were too expensive," recalls W. Scott Walker, senior vice president at GM Hughes Electronics Corp. "Now we are in phase two of technology transfer, developing ways to migrate technology. It needed transition."

TRW seems to have learned from Hughes' early zealousness. It opened the Center for Automotive Technology at its space and defense operations four years ago in Redondo Beach, CA. "We're not transferring discrete technology," explains Mr. Stone, "we're transferring basic knowledge, know-how, processes and people."

An electric power steering gear is one automotive system TRW is developing with aerospace technology. Its controller uses technology from spacecraft, but, he says, "We didn't take a control box off a spacecraft and bolt it onto a steering column." TRW puts aerospace and automotive personnel together and they solve automotive problems on a project-by-project basis, he says.

Since its inception in 1990, TRW's CAT has managed more than 100 projects for the parent company's automotive units. Included are air-bag inflators, automotive radar and electronic crash sensors.

"The transfer has to be managed and guided using the automotive product-development process - making sure it's something the customer wants at every part of the development process," says Delco Electronic's Mr. Schumaker, who has witnessed the successful development of a radar obstacle-detection system in collaboration with GM Hughes Electronics, plus a variety of advanced-sensor programs.

David M. Purvis, vice president-technology at AlliedSignal Automotive, agrees. "The program has to be managed from an automotive-system perspective with a strong vehicle person managing the project," he says. AlliedSignal doesn't have a central technology transfer center like TRW, but it follows the same methodology at various locations.

"The companies that have done technology transfers) successfully leverage another commercial manufacturing process and run the product through it," says Rockwell's Mr. Stevens, who encourages defense companies lacking automotive divisions to find partners to help them get a foot in the door. "Most pure, high-cost, low-volume defense companies can't make the switch," he suggests.

Conversely, small automotive supplier companies - which don't have the vast resources of Hughes, TRW, Rockwell and AlliedSignal - also can benefit from technology transfer. Last July, Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago conducted a forum for hundreds of small auto suppliers on how to tap into joint research opportunities at federal labs and universities to improve products and develop new ones.

"We have to bring technology to small businesses," says Harvey Drucker, Argonne's associate director for energy and environmental science and technology. "We have to make it really easy. We have to get into a dialogue with them to explain technologies in their language."

Individually, the national labs are opening their doors to all U.S. industry, and auto companies are taking advantage of the opportunity. Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM, has program that created "user facilities" or "technology development centers." This expands on the concept of technology transfer by allowing businesses quick and easy access to a wide variety of capabilities at the labs. GM is using the facility to help improve the design of an electronic emissions device for a 1998 vehicle.

"We couldn't buy these kinds of resources," says Earl Fuller, president of Novus Technologies Inc., an Albuquerque-based manufacturer of commercial satellite components. "Traditionally small business has looked at Sandia strictly as a funding source, a place to sell their products. The way I look at it today, Sandia is a business resource, a place where I can access world-class technical facilities."

GM also has taken advantage of the Pacific Northwest Laboratory (PNL) located in Richmond, WA, which specializes in advanced materials for weapons. Saginaw Div. and GM Research and Development worked with PNL to develop an ultrasonic microstructural analyzer, which quickly estimates the hardness depth of heat-treated steel components using ultrasonic waves. Originally developed for the Cruise missile program, the process provides information about the strength and wear-resistance of steel parts without destroying them. The technology, PNL researchers believe, will reduce manufacturing costs by tens of millions of dollars annually, thanks to improved manufacturing consistency.

Besides keeping the defense industry afloat and upgrading automotive technology, there are numerous other spinoffs from technology transfer. Underscoring that it's a two-way street, the defense and aerospace businesses are learning about lean, cost-effective design, development and manufacturing from the automotive side, where every penny counts.

TRW recently was awarded a $21.5 million Air Force contract to make military aircraft and automotive electronics hardware at the same time on the same production line. TRW's plant in Marshall, IL, will build F-22 fighter communication, navigation and identification electronics avionics modules alongside automobile electronics. The program is part of an effort to develop and implement a manufacturing strategy that ensures a robust industrial base, responsive to both military and commercial needs, into the next century.

Gen. O'Loughlin says that in addition to these types of programs, the Air Force is adjusting its specifications so it can use more commercially available products and keep prices down. To his credit, the late Donald L. Atwood, a former GM executive vice president who served as deputy secretary of defense in the Bush Administration, was a prime mover behind this push to buy off-the-shelf items wherever possible. The brouhaha over $600 toilet seats was a prime motivator.

There are other examples of mutually beneficial relationships between the armed services and the auto industry. One is the Army's Tank-Automotive Research Development Engineering Center's (TARDEC) relationship with Pentastar Electronics, a Chrysler subsidiary, which has developed powertrains for hybrid electric vehicles. The Army is trying to use Pentastar powerplants to make quiet-running reconnaissance vehicles. In return, Pentastar is picking up pointers on active-suspension and vehicle-control systems from TARDEC.

TARDEC also is teaming with GM to make vehicles more visible to other drivers in an effort to reduce accidents. The joint project, sort of like camouflage and stealth technology in reverse, will study which vehicle colors, shapes and lighting locations are more visible to other drivers.

Another benefit to technology transfer, says AlliedSignal's Mr. Purvis, is that automotive companies can teach defense and aerospace manufacturers how to manage a global business. "Several companies sell products overseas, but they are selling products designed for Americans to use," says Mr. Purvis. "Some transferable technologies, such as those for intelligent transportation systems, need to be tailored for specific regions and their people." He adds that auto manufacturers and their suppliers are good at developing core products that, with modifications, can better suit local markets.

Several technology transfers have been successful. Others are in development, and still more are on the horizon. The following is a sampling of completed projects and those under way.

* Thermal vision system: Texas Instruments and Hughes developed Nightsight, used by several law-enforcement agencies to track suspects in the dark. The heart of the system is an infrared video camera based on sensing technology, developed in cooperation with the U.S. Army, which uses thermal vision in night combat. Video from the camera is displayed on a television monitor located inside the police vehicle. Another Hughes innovation is Data Vision, a head-up display for police cruisers that provides important data shown on the windshield above the instrument panel such as speed, mug shots and rap sheets.

* Electric vehicle (EV) charging system: Hughes turned to fighter aircraft high-frequency radar technology when it designed an EV charging system. Airborne radar is small and powerful, characteristics that are invaluable in making a charging system that could fit into an EV. Hughes says its charger, using high-frequency electronics switching, can boost typical household current from 60 Hz up to 100 kHz. The chargers also can be installed at various locations to form a recharging network. Hughes also gets credit for helping to develop systems in GM's Impact EV now undergoing consumer testing, including the car's propulsion system.

* Obstacle detection: Hughes also used its military radar experience to develop FOREWARN for school buses and other vehicles. The system detects moving objects in front of or underneath a vehicle - the "blind spots." It has a 0.15-in.(3.8-mm) chip with an on-board oscillator in the system's sensors. The oscillator makes the sensor more practical and less expensive than military versions.

* Composite material steering and suspension components: TRW is investigating the use of graphite epoxy used in spacecraft structures and antennas for steering and suspension components. A steering gear housing made of this material is being tested.

* Smart structures: TRW Space and Electronics Group's Spacecraft Technology Div. is helping the company's automotive personnel to create a monitor for vehicle structural integrity.

* Active noise and vibration-suppression systems: TRW is exploring active structural controls originally designed for spacecraft to control noises and vibration in automotive applications.

* Chrysler child seat sensor: Several Rockwell divisions brainstormed to adapt a vision system used in missile guidance (a small camera on a chip and sophisticated software) to solve a child-seat sensing problem for Chrysler.

* Vehicle location: Several companies are incorporating global positioning satellite (GPS) system technology into vehicle navigation systems and intelligent transportation systems. GPS already is being used in numerous traffic-control pilot projects and in the trucking industry for navigation and other purposes.

* Honeycomb structures: Hexcel Corp. is working to bring advanced aerospace honeycomb structure technology to the automotive industry by using less exotic materials such as polypropylene or spun-bonded olefin for knee bolsters, arm rests and door panels.

* New substrates: DuPont Co. is finding further automotive uses for its Kapton polyimide film as a high-temperature substrate for a new throttle-position sensor to boost engine performance and maximize fuel efficiency of Ford vehicles.

* Turbogenerators: AlliedSignal is developing a prototype 22-Kw turbine-driven generator called a turbogenerator. It includes a catalytic combustor to reduce exhaust emissions levels and a high-effectiveness recuperator to increase fuel economy. Past attempts at applying gas turbine technology to the automotive industry - and it has been going on for more than 40 years - haven't been successful because of high costs due mainly to the complexity of conventional gas turbines and the expensive materials used for the hot-end components.

* The Langley connection: Ford recently signed a two-year cooperative agreement with NASA's Langley Research Center to apply space technology to the development of new cars and trucks. Together they'll explore technologies related to flow measurement techniques, antenna measurements, carbon piston technology, computational fluid mechanics and advanced materials to improve manufacturing processes.

* "Affordable supercar": X-Corp., a Los Angeles-based high-tech R&D company, has developed what it calls an affordable 90-mpg (2.6L/100 km) supercar. The company says its Series 2 supercar is the result of aerospace engineers using state-of-the-art aerospace and defense technologies, including advanced materials and electrical and structural engineering.

* Electric motors: SatCon Technology Corp. is testing what it calls the highest power-density compact electric motor ever built. Developed for Chrysler's Patriot hybrid-electric research race car, it generates 500 hp, is 1 ft. (0.3 m) long and weighs 145 lbs. (66 kg).

* Multiplexing: United Technologies Automotive (UTA) used the knowledge and experience it gained through building multiplexed wiring systems for military aircraft and helicopters to design the multiplex wiring system for the '95 Lincoln Continental. UTA says both industries have similar requirements: reliability and space and weight constraints.

Multiplexing and other advanced methods of handling data, experts say, are among the most visible technologies transferred. "This will allow the industry to fundamentally reinvent the way we handle information," says Rockwell's Mr. Stevens. "One of the challenges is generating a liquid crystal display that shows a choice of graphic information in a clear way that is similar to current electromechanical displays."

Other futuristic transfers from the defense and aerospace world could include sensors for combustion pressure or yaw sensing, or using lasers instead of radar for measuring range in collision-avoidance systems.

With these "small steps" toward technology transfer taking place at a fairly rapid clip, it may not be long before the automotive industry takes some "giant leaps" in vehicle technology.