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ODD-LOOKING VEHICLES TO HERALD NEW, SAFER ERA OF TRANSPORTATION

You'll be seeing some strange vehicles on the roads and highways of America in the next few months. Do not fear them. They're here to make things safer and perhaps to save us all some money.

The vehicles - buses equipped with on-board radar to prevent collisions and a van that can film the smalles detail of your neighborhood - are just two of the latest developments in a booming industry known by the initials IVHS. Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems companies apply emerging technologies to transportation issues in hopes of making things safer or more efficient.The next time you see a Greybound bus in the rearview mirror, you can breathe a little easier. Those economical people-movers that connect the dots of small-town America are about to get safer.

After a four-month, four-bus evaluation, San Diego-based VORAD (Vehicular On-board Radar) Safety Systems recently signed a $5 million contract with Greyhound to install high-tech crash-protection devices on each of the line's 2,300 buses.

Installation begins in August, with the entire fleet getting retrofitted by mid-1993. The anti-crash devices, which include an antenna and audio and visual warning devices, will let drivers know when they're getting too close to the traffic ahead.

"This is one of several significant validations of IVHS," VORAD President Paul Bouchard said. "Is it firmly established? No, but certainly the signs are all there."

Bouchard demonstrated a version of his company's product at an appearance by then-Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner in San Francisco last fall.

The Cabinet member was asked to drive straight toward a parked car without hitting the brakes of a specially equipped Lincoln Town Car. The car's radar detected an object ahead and braked itself. Several members of the media repeated the trick and came away impressed.

For Greyhound, the VORAD system includes a grille-mounted antenna and a dash-mounted driver control unit. The system will alert drivers of potential hazards with both a warning light and a tone. The system also will include technology similar to an airplane's black box, recording 15 minutes of speed and other driving actions.

"We were extremely impressed with the improved safety that the radar provided us," said Greyhound spokesman Bill Kula, when asked to explain why the company made such a commitment to VORAD. "Many of the drivers talked about the possible accidents they were able to avoid because the radar unit was on their buses."

Based on the number of accidents Greyhound hopes to avoid, plus the revenue it won't lose from potential lawsuits as well as damaged luggage and property, "The system would pay for itself within a year's time," Kula said.

According to studies cited by Bouchard, an extra half-second of warning time would prevent 60 percent of all rear-end collisions.

"It's highly likely that some form of on-board radar will become a staple of all personal automobiles in the future," said Greyhound's Kula.

Another IVHS development comes from GEOSPAN, a Minneapolis-based company. Last month, the company debuted something it calls a Geovan. Equipped with video cameras and computers, the van does a visual census of a street, neighborhood or town.

"It's an odd-looking vehicle," admits Jerry Robinson, CEO of GEOSPAN.

Eight high-resolution VHS cameras peek out from the raised roof of the van. Two point in each direction and film overlapping images. A two-person crew operates the vehicle. There's a driver and navigator who can view all eight monitors.

"That means you can see the road itself - the potholes and striping. You can see the infrastructure - the fire hydrants, utility poles," he said. This type of information would be useful to city maintenance or public safety departments. They could visually check out the condition of a city's streets without havking to dispatch crews out on a wild-goose chase looking for potholes. In his hometown of Minneapolis, maintenance crews are dispatched 1,000 times a year to check out a complaint.