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One dark night a couple of years ago, one of Salt Lake-based C.R. England & Sons' 1,500 refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks was stolen somewhere in Georgia.

In these crime-plagued times of high-tech larceny, it was surely gone for good.Wrong.

The missing vehicle was equipped with a homing device tied into a national satellite system that tracks the whereabouts within 1,000 feet of every C.R. England truck 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.

"We called the police and gave them the exact location," said David Lemperle, the company's director of communications.

"They went there and said, `It's an empty field.' "

"We said, `It is not!' so they looked again and found a big hole out in the middle of this field. Most of the tractor was gone, but the satellite unit and axle were still there."

Police staked out the pit and caught the culprit when he came back for the scrap after having sold the rest of the truck for parts.

The moral of the story is not just that Big Brother is watching but that ITS - Intelligent Transportation Systems - have arrived and are among us now.

That's the theme of a Thursday conference at the Salt Lake Hilton that will feature speeches by experts in a new field of vehicle technology that's already appearing in Utah and is in extensive use elsewhere. Talks will include ones on systems that allow drivers to determine, on a dashboard screen, their exact position vis-a-vis traffic jams, listen to "real-time" reports on road conditions ahead and tap assorted other travel-information technology that is no longer futuristic.

Among the speakers will be Glenn Goodrich, director of the Utah Department of Transportation's Motor Carrier Division, who will explain automated systems at checkpoints near St. George and Brigham City that already let tractor-trailers coming into Utah be weighed and registered without stopping.

Similar operations are in use in a handful of other states.

"It's remarkable," said Goodrich. "It takes about two seconds to transfer the data."

The upshot is greater efficiency for trucking companies and state inspectors.

Applications are surfacing for urban commuters, too.

It's possible in some parts of the country today to buy an Oldsmobile with a $2,000 map-display option that tracks the car's location and suggests travel routes. Avis Car Rental has installed the system in some of its California cars, and Sara Riley Colosimo, UDOT's recently appointed research project manager, predicts its imminent appearance in Utah.

UDOT last month began installing an automated fog-detection system that will go on line this year at the I-215 bridge over the Jordan River near the spot of a 68-car pileup in heavy fog in December 1988. Sensors will trigger signs recommending travel speed to motorists approaching the area.

It's one of several ITS projects UDOT is exploring, according to Colosimo, who comes from a traffic-management background in Chicago.

Part of the impetus for the interest - in addition to growing grid-lock along the Wasatch Front - is a defense industry in decline that is looking for work elsewhere.

Rockwell International, the Clearfield defense contractor, won the $400,000 fog-sensor project.

"The guys I'm working with on this were developing a missile-detection system," said Colosimo. "Some of the same systems are involved."

UDOT also awarded a 14-month contract late last year to a Denver-based transportation consultant to propose a way to harness some of the new technology to help traffic flow better.

The first task, said Barbara Schroeder, a senior transportation engineer for De Leuw, Cather and Co., is getting everybody on the same wavelength. Schroeder notes the governmental jurisdiction tangle along the Wasatch Front, in which commuters pass from one city to another and often from county to county.

Hopes are that the state within a few years will build a "traffic-management central" like Minneapolis has used since the late 1960s, monitoring flow - or its absence - with video cameras and other devices.

Governments along the Wasatch Front are already planning a way to synchronize traffic signals from Ogden to Provo. Signs that warn of trouble ahead and advise of alternate routes could be wired into the fiber optics network that Gov. Mike Leavitt has talked about draping across the state. Radio side bands used by on-the-ground traffic controllers will probably supplant the eye-in-the-sky airplanes that now provide commuters with occasional traffic updates.

"The ideas is to give drivers and potential drivers information so they can make better decisions about their trip," said Schroeder.

Utah's private sector is already jockeying for a piece of the action.

QSI Corp., UDOT's cohost for Thursday's seminar, produces vehicle terminals that allow what is essentially the transmission of e-mail. The Salt Lake company has landed a contract with the Portland Transit Authority to supply its 800 buses with terminals like the ones already used by Utah Transit Authority bus drivers to communicate with dispatchers.

And Rockwell International's Utah Division is one of four companies vying for the rights to design a national vehicle-location system that would let drivers use Global Positioning Systems to find their way around any city.

Schroeder said Wasatch Front applications would serve largely to make rush hour more tolerable for the average commuter.

"The idea is to increase mobility without actually widening the road."