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`SMART CARS' STEER CLEAR OF TRAFFIC JAMS

"Smart cars" designed by General Motors Corp. can steer drivers away from clogged roads, but a GM executive discovered to his chagrin this week they can't avoid every obstacle.

GM Vice President Robert Frosch climbed into one of 100 Oldsmobile Toronados fitted with computers, video screens and other equipment that monitors highway conditions and plots the most efficient course to a given destination.Moments later, Frosch ran over an orange traffic cone inadvertently left in front of the car.

"I believe it has been crushed," Frosch said.

But Frosch eventually made it to downtown Orlando in fine time, following directions dictated by a Swedish-sounding computer voice nicknamed "Sven" by GM engineers.

The cone-crushing was the only gaffe in the day's formal unveiling of GM's travel technology, or "TravTek." The plan is to put all 100 cars on central Florida roads for one year.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Andrew Card told a small crowd at Orlando's Expo Center that the technology puts the United States well ahead of Japanese and German competitors.

"This is not just a toy, not a Nintendo game," said Card. He said the technology, also being tested in California and Illinois, could translate into jobs and exports.

The Federal Highway Administration is one of five major partners underwriting the $12 million joint venture. GM, Florida's transportation department and the American Automobile Association and the city of Orlando also contributed funding.

Avis Rent-a-Car System Inc. will lease 75 of the vehicles. The rest will be rented to local drivers.

The road test involves 1,200 square miles, 75,000 intersections and 10,000 miles of roads in central Florida. Drivers punch in a street address or the name of a destination. The computer then displays the best route on a 6-inch video screen, using information from NASA's Global Positioning Satellites, electronic road sensors and video cameras along Interstate 4.

If traffic jams or a road blockage appears, the computer maps a new route. Throughout the journey, the computer's synthesized voice gently reminds the driver where the car is and ought to be.

Tourism officials are happy about another feature: When the car is in park, drivers can browse through a computerized list of local hotels, attractions and city landmarks.

Frosch predicted it would be six to eight years before smart cars will be in widespread use.