In a technological breakthrough that could shave months, perhaps years, off future vehicle programs, seat-maker Johnson Controls Inc. has begun using a virtual driving simulator with a 180-degree wraparound screen that captures the sights, sounds and bumps of real-world roads.

The simulator is the centerpiece of JCI's new $3.5-million advanced comfort center at its Plymouth, MI, technical center.

Here's how it works: A vehicle cabin buck with two rows of seats, an instrument panel and headliner - essentially the whole car from front bumper to the rear window, minus the tires - is placed on a hydraulic shaker table. The vehicle, loaded with three electronic mannequins, then begins its drive with the shaker table absorbing every dip, bump or curve experienced on the screen. There are other virtual vehicles, too, both oncoming and in the same lane as the test vehicle. The system even picks up the noise generated from the passing traffic.

A motion analysis system tracks each mannequin's movement and its pressure points in the seat. Pressure mapping software enables JCI technicians to measure how well each seat supports the back, buttocks and legs of the respective mannequins.

Sure it looks cool. But JCI didn't buy it so engineers could entertain themselves, although JCI engineers admit there was just a little bit of playing around in the first few weeks the simulator was in operation.

Ken Karpczuk, chief engineer for the comfort center, says the simulator's primary benefit is its ability to create real-world testing conditions so JCI can measure a seat's performance much earlier in the development process.

Previously engineers had to wait until a complete prototype vehicle was built to conduct the same types of tests.

JCI is testing each of three interior bucks on the system. One replicates an average small car, a second is a midsize car and the third is based on a compact sport/utility vehicle.

Less than a year after a high-profile exposition of its technological accomplishments, the National Automated Highway System Consortium is in the process of being terminated.

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation, the primary contributor to the automated highway system (AHS) research program, cut its NAHSC funding for fiscal year 1998 to $2 million after spending about $54 million since 1994.

"On Oct. 1 we're completely shutting the door and wrapping things up," says Ray Resendes, Intelligent Vehicle Initiative (IVI) program coordinator.

Mr. Resendes says today's roadblock for automated highways is the installation of infrastructure, including in-road magnetic studs that maintain lateral and longitudinal vehicle controls. NAHSC also initially stipulated separate highway lanes for automated travel. "Very few states accepted that, except California," says Mr. Resendes.

DOT now is allocating $25 to $30 million annually to IVI, a program that emphasizes collision-avoidance systems. That decision was made after Congress validated studies by DOT and the National Academy of Science. "We decided the best way to spend our money was on more near-term solutions primarily focused on safety," says Mr. Resendes.

The NAHSC, a public/private partnership that includes General Motors Corp. and Delco Electronic Systems, in late 1994 was awarded the AHS contract. DOT originally appropriated $162 million over eight years for AHS research, but annual funding was lower than budgeted, says James Rillings, program manager for GM's Intelligent Transportation Systems Program.

"It's difficult for DOT to fund a long-term research project when the rest of the federal government thinks it's a mistake," claims Mr. Rillings, who recently accepted an award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, Development and Innovation.

The NAHSC cites numerous benefits from automated travel. Most important, Mr. Rillings says, are AHS aspects like relieving traffic congestion and reducing accidents caused by driver error.

In August 1997, NAHSC tested automated driving on a freeway near San Diego; GM provided Buicks equipped with the required equipment for the "hands-free" driving automated highways ultimately promise. NAHSC also had case studies under way in Houston, New York and Minneapolis.

"We could've brought it into reality on certain highways within 15 years. That's not going to happen now," says Mr. Rillings.

AHS work continues, especially in California, Europe and Japan, but DOT's pullback of funds looks to be a vote of no confidence.

Maybe the DOT didn't like NAHSC cornering the market on acronyms. - Brian Corbett