Air bags have come a long way since Harry A. Bertrand first patented the concept in 1958. But now that they're standard equipment on just about every vehicle sold in the U.S., they're yesterday's news.

Automakers and suppliers are raiding their electronic toy chests to produce Star Trek-caliber safety features for future vehicles, including navigation systems, steer-by-wire, even systems that actively help drivers avoid accidents.

In Japan, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is field-testing a Drowsiness Monitor System (DMS), consisting of a camera mounted in the dashboard that constantly monitors the blinking pattern of the driver's eyes. If the monitor detects a drowsy state -- by detecting a change in blinking pattern -- an alarm sounds to alert the driver.

So far, all the experimental vehicles equipped with DMS have been passenger cars, but over-the-road truck drivers certainly would benefit from the new technology.

Nissan's BirdView Navigation System (BNS), planned for the new Cedric/Gloria model in Japan, is almost completed. Like most current navigation systems, BNS's monitor displays a map, vehicle location and a recommended route, but differs by offering a 3-D, "bird's eye" view.

Using a high-speed conversion algorithm and advanced software, two-dimensional maps are converted into hypothetical 3-D images. Making the image easier to understand and more realistic, the foreground covers a 0.3 mi. (500m) area while the background expands to cover 4.3 mi. (7 km). The display is updated every 1.5 to 3 seconds.

European automakers want to take navigational systems (NAVs) further by adding a Travel and Traffic Information System (TTIS). Guided by a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite, wheel sensors and mapping software, the navigation systems would be aided by a communications infrastructure that constantly provides "real time" information about construction, accidents or weather.

The recommended routes are then altered to provide the best alternative path. Various displays for navigation systems, including monitors, head-up display and audio instructions, are currently under study.

General Motors Corp.'s Hughes Electronics Corp. already has introduced its Telepath 100 system, which communicates with global positioning satellites (GPS) to pinpoint a car's location and then provides easy-to-follow directions to a pre-selected destination via a small electronic display.

But a NAV is a fish out of water without a communications infrastructure, says Thomas Hoyt, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co.'s Automotive Components Div. "We have the technology and could put it (NAV) in a production model in about a year, but our market research shows us that customers don't see it as a benefit without 'real time' information," he says.

The Remote Emergency Safety Cellular Unit, RESCU, is a more practical option for today, says Ford spokeswoman Della DiPietro. "With the push of a button, police or a tow truck can be dispatched to your exact location," she says. Linked to a GPS, the special cellular phone can instantly provide a driver's location for emergency service. RESCU, planned for the '96 Lincoln Continental, also can provide users the ability to receive exact directions from a dispatcher if they become lost.

In Europe, Autonomous Intelligent Cruise Control (AICC) uses either a radar-based or laser-based sensor to measure the distance to the vehicle in front of it, electronically adjusting the brakes and throttle to maintain a predetermined distance.

Mated with an automatic transmission, AICC could control a vehicle in stop-and-go traffic with only steering input from the driver. The benefits of such a system include less driver fatigue, increased safety and improved traffic flow, which reduces emissions. AICC-equipped cars from BMW AG, Mercedes-Benz AG, Jaguar Ltd., Porsche AG, Saab Automobile AB and AB Volvo might hit American roads by the turn of the century.

Electronic steering, or steer-by-wire, also is being developed by many automakers. Saab says it reduces driver fatigue by separating the driver from unintended wheel movements caused by wind gusts or potholes. The mechanical column is replaced with a microprocessor that receives information from sensors at the front and rear of the vehicle, adjusting the wheels to compensate for any non-driver input while keeping the vehicle in the intended direction.

Because drivers receive road input from the steering wheel during turns, artificial "torque" is being developed to make the steering feel more normal. An added safety feature: there is no steering column to protrude into the cockpit during a collision.

Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) also is being explored extensively. Sensors and actuators replace the mechanical link between the throttle and engine to constantly achieve the best possible power output without losing traction. Some '95 BMW models already have it.

Taking steering to a galaxy far, far away, Saab is testing a steering joystick. Mounted to either side of the driver in a gear-shifter fashion, the speed-sensitive joystock electronically turns the wheels in relation to speed. The driver's forearm lies on an arm rest to prevent unintentional movement caused by bumps. With no steering wheel, the driver cockpit can be designed to maximize safety and instrument placement, including a navigational monitoring screen.

Suppliers have come to the aide of automakers by offering numerous practical and more affordable electrical safety components, too.

Gentex Corp., for instance, has made significant market penetration with its Night Vision Safety mirrors that automatically dim all mirrors if driver-distracting glare is detected.

United Technologies Automotive has licensed a prismatic side-view exterior mirror that allows the driver to see alongside and behind the vehicle. Special Fresnel prisms and reflective surfaces allow improved vision while the mirror offers no styling or aerodynamic problems.

To poke holes through the night with brighter, more focused beams, inert gas has replaced conventional filament as the illuminating core of advanced high intensity discharge (HID) headlights, which are being used on several high-line U.S. and European models. Not only do they create three times as much light, their bluish spectrum also contains some traces of ultraviolet, which accentuates fluorescent material in road markers.

The smaller headlights complement today's aerodynamic designs, and can detect reflective, light-colored or fluorescent objects at twice the distance of conventional headlights. Plus, the blue-tinted lights don't "blind" other motorists or reflect back in fog or mist as do high-beams.

Robert Bosch Corp.'s "smart" headlights can change angle, output, and reflective lens usage to adjust to vehicle conditions including turning, load or weather.

Bosch also has "smart" windshield wipers that use rain sensors to detect any moisture on the windshield, automatically activating the wipers and adjusting them to keep the windshield clear of rain or mist. The system also automatically closes the sunroof, all in an effort to keep the driver from being distracted.

Even current safety features like air bags will improve greatly with electronic advances. AlliedSignal Automotive hopes to have its Occupant Safety System in place by the turn of the century. The system includes integrated seat belts with pretensioners in the seats and radar to predict a crash. This allows time for sensors in the vehicle to record passenger position and deploy air bags if necessary. New variable-output inflators would control the rate of air-bag inflation depending on passenger position and the severity of the crash.

Searching for the final frontier, automakers and suppliers from around the world explore the ultimate safety feature: Active Crash Avoidance. The pre-emptive system consists of radar-based sensors around the vehicle that monitor its position in relation to other vehicles. If an invasion of space is detected, a warning sounds to alert the driver. If the driver can't react quickly enough, the vehicle automatically scans its radar and performs the safest possible maneuver by utilizing it's electronically-controlled, actuator-activated brakes, throttle and steering.

For the first time, complete vehicle control could be removed from the driver, going "over the edge" for some. Liability issues alone could discourage its entry into the market, so the most likely crash-avoidance systems to hit the streets would likely disengage after sounding the alarm.

Greyhound Lines installed warning-only systems on 1,500 busses in 1992, and accident rates fell 21% within a year. But Greyhound has recently decided to remove the features because of high upgrade and maintenance costs. Drivers, who attribute the accident-rate decrease to labor circumstances, reported that the systems were too sensitive, sounding the alarms when passing police radar or automated highway signs. The radar-based sensors also set off radar-detectors, causing paranoid speeders to brake unexpectedly, defeating the purpose of the crash-avoidance.

Cooperation has been the key to success because ultimate safety can be expensive. In Japan, the Advanced Safety Vehicle (ASV) project is promoted by the Ministry of Transport. In Europe, 14 automobile manufactures are involved in the Programme for a European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety, or PROMETHEUS.

And in the U.S., Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems Initiative (IVHSI), the six-year, $600-million, federal defense-conversion program has the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Advanced Research Project Agency planning a fully automated prototype highway in California.

The goal is to make the safest, most efficient highway system by using sensors and communication systems on the highway itself to allow "hands-off" driving. Ford is participating in Project Advance and General Motors Corp. in the National Automated Highway System.