ORLANDO, FL - Driverless cars on automated highways are fodder for great science fiction. But as 1996 draws to a close, intelligent vehicles and smart roads inch slightly closer to science.

As industrial and governmental leaders from around the globe gather here for the Third Annual World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) to proclaim the incredible potential of smart highways and vehicles, Chrysler Corp. lets action speak louder than words.

Chrysler has spent $10 million during the last four years to make vehicles drive themselves around a 1.3-mile (2-km) oval road at its Chelsea, MI, proving ground. Although the investment was intended to hasten vehicle development time and not to further the world's collective ITS knowledge base, there are lessons to be learned in Chelsea.

First and foremost: ITS is not cheap and it's not easy. Wiring the road and the adjacent staging and service areas cost $250,000. Guidance systems (a robot and a computer which occupy both front seats) cost $50,000 each.

"People who see it think it should be more transparent," says Susan M. Cischke, Chrysler's general manager-scientific labs and proving grounds. "We could have made it more transparent, but we chose to make it as real-world-like as possible."

The system also had to be somewhat easy to install on a vehicle. Ms. Cischke says Chrysler can have a car ready to test in four hours. She adds that the automated test facility should pare the time it takes for accelerated body/chassis durability testing from six to two weeks.

Here's how the Chrysler automated durability road works:

The wire in the road carries a vehicle guidance tone at 2,500 hz. Two coils mounted on a test vehicle's front bumper pick up the frequency as volts. When the car moves from side to side it changes the voltage between the wire and each coil. The guidance computer then instructs the robot to steer to stay on course.

An engineer in a nearby control room gives the command to accelerate, change lanes and brake. An antenna on the rear of the vehicle works with transponders embedded every 100 ft. (30m) in the road to report the vehicle's location to the control room.

The complete durability road facility includes a service road surrounding a test surface of Belgian blocks and also has a 640-ft. (195-m) truck lane. The truck lane features various frame-twisting surfaces that range from 4-in. (100-mm) high blocks to 6.5-in. (165-mm)deep potholes. Soon the guidance wires will lead to the facility's service bay so cars can drive right in for inspection before and after testing.

Jeff Zyburt, the automated durability road's project leader, says there have been many hurdles during development that illustrate the project's complexity. One vehicle started making unprogrammed left turns and it took seven weeks to track down the faulty component.

Based on his experience, Mr. Zyburt says he is leery of any public automated roadway plans. "I can't imagine being 6 ft. (1.8-m) from another car and either the car or the system fails at 100 mph (160.9 km/hr)," he says. "We have a perfect world out here, and we know every bit of the road."

Even if, for the sake of discussion, you assume the ITS technology of the future is safe and reliable, "it all boils down to cost," Mr. Zyburt says. "Let's say someday the option cost per vehicle for an automated car is $3,000. We can't even get people to spend $200 on cruise control for some cars." Another roadblock ITS planners are struggling with is communications. "There is no real-time communications," explains Ms. Cischke. "There's always a delay."

There also are pieces of the ITS puzzle that would be assembled differently for an automated public road. The road itself would be smart, rather than the vehicle, which is the case at Chelsea.

On the other hand, says Ms. Cischke, intelligent highways "may not make a lot of sense if you have to redo the infrastructure."

Even the people attending the third ITS World Congress acknowledge the technological shortcomings of intelligent roads and vehicles.

Noting that it took 25 years for navigation systems to reach the public, ITS World Congress Chairman T. Russell Shields, chairman of Navigation Technologies, says, "It'll be decades before there are public automated highways."

Until then, research continues. In August 1997 two automated buses. an automated police car and 10 '97 Buick LeSabres will cruise driverless up and down a 7.6-mile (12 km),two-lane stretch of I-15 in San Diego. The vehicles will be equipped with advanced cruise control, crash-avoidance technology and vehicle navigation. They will be controlled via high-strength magnets embedded every 3 to 10 ft. (1 to 3 m) in the road.

Michael Doble. Buick's manager of advanced concept, was in Orlando to talk about the the General Motors Corp. division's role in the San Diegoproject. He says the vehicles will travel at 50 mph (80 km/h) 6 ft. (1.8 m) apart.

Six magnetometer sensors, mounted to the front and rear bumpers, read the magnets in the pavement. Information gathered by the magnetometers will be fed to an on-board computer. When the computer determines the car's lane position, it will issue commands to the steering actuator. This equipment will work with the power steeringsystem to guide the car. The driver may resume manual control of the steering at any time.

Highly sensitive front and rear radar will be used to locate the positions of the cars ahead and behind. The radar sensors will communicate with the on-board computer, which will then issue commands to brake and throttle actuators. Radar and vision systems are being evaluated for a system to detect obstacles in the road such as animals and debris falling from another vehicle.

Radio communication will provide both car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure information exchanges. The cars will travel in platoons of 10 in which every car will know the precise whereabouts of every other car in that group.

Vehicles in the San Diego test also will receive radio information from a traffic management center. When a car approaches the automated highway system, it must be electronically scanned to assure that all systems are go for automatic travel. Once the car completes that procedure, commands will be issued to merge into a particular lane and accelerate to a precise cruising speed. The car-to-road communications link will be open at all times to handle exiting, emergencies and malfunctions.

Most of the automation equipment will be packaged in the LeSabre's trunk. Heavy-duty alternators and air-conditioning ducts to keep the on-board computers cool will be added. Two interior displays will inform both the driver and passengers of the automated highway system's status. The driver will see a head-up display, and a flat-panel liquid-crystal display will be used for those in the back seat.

Although Buick won't reveal how much each LeSabre's ITS alterations cost, a source from the National Automated Highway System Consortium, of which Buick is a member, says the equipment budget per car is $100,000.

"Separately none of these systems would lead to an automated highway," explains Mr. Doble. "This is only achieveable when you integrate them as a total system."

Until large volumes of intelligent vehicles travel on smart highways, the best way to unclog the nation's traffic congestion is to arm drivers with more information so they can make better decisions. And the method getting the most attention in Orlando is vehicle navigation.

Hiroshi Tsuda, Nissan's deputy general manager of electronics development on temporary assignment with ITS America, says if 10% of the driving population uses vehicle navigation, traffic congestion can be significantly lessened.

"Of course as traffic clears, people who were afraid to drive before will drive again, so there is a bit of a tradeoff," says Mr. Tsuda, whose company introduced its new Birdview navigation system in Orlando.

Rather than only giving turn-by-turn directions, the system, which is available on some Nissan vehicles sold in Japan, provides an arcade-like - above-the-car-looking-forward - view of the route on an in-car screen. It also includes landmarks along the route.

Mr. Tsuda says the idea is popular in Japan, where many streets have no names and current navigation system directions confuse drivers as much as they help.

Several other new navigation products were unveiled at the ITS World Congress.

BMW of North America Inc. introduces a factory-installed communications package available on 1997 model 5 and 7 Series cars. It includes an emergency communications function, alternate route planning, continuous route monitoring, a navigation address book and other useful travel information.

Ford Motor Co. announces it will offer an optional navigation system on its '97 Mondeo in Europe. The system will display turn-by-turn directions to destinations and issue verbal instructions.

"We're trying to simulate someone sitting next to you giving you directions," says Derrick Kuzak, director of Ford's electrical and electronic systems engineering, who adds that the navigation option likely will cost between $500 and $700.

While Mr. Kuzak won't reveal any specific plans to offer navigation in a North America vehicle, he says it's "possible" that it could happen before 2,000. And although the Ford system can't receive real-time information from a central traffic management center, Mr. Kuzak says it could be upgraded and that "the direction we're heading is cellular."

Ford's cellular push could play right into the hands of Siemens Automotive, which introduces a new navigation device that uses cellular communications to transmit and receive real-time traffic information. Siemens says the system, which also provides turn-by-turn route guidance, roadside assistance and emergency service communications, should be market ready by mid-1998. Unlike navigation systems such as Nissan's Birdview, which feature more-sophisticated graphics and cost thousands of dollars, the Siemens system is expected to go for $700 to $800.

Other news out of Orlando includes AT/Comm Inc.'s announcement that it will install a fully integrated electronic toll and traffic-management system on the Maine Turnpike.

Minnesota's DOT unveils an ITS initiative called Orion, which will include an integrated communications system, an automatic vehicle location system for mass transit vehicles, computer-aided 911 dispatch, freeway and arterial management using video surveillance cameras and an advanced traveler information system that can be accessed via phone, fax, cable TV, radio, pagers and computers.

Quoting an unnamed source in his remarks during the ITS World Congress, Automobile Association of America President Malcolm R. Darbelnet sums up the overall spirit of ITS: "If you don't think about the future, you won't have one."