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New designs put brakes on traditional car parts

The carburetor. Gone. Distributor. Rest in peace.

And that's just the beginning. Unless you spend a lot of time under your car's hood, you probably hadn't noticed more of the automobile's mechanical components are disappearing.And in a few years you might not recognize anything but the dipstick.

Taking over for these clunky devices are sleek electronic systems that use powerful computer chips to manage everything from the engine and gear box to anti-theft systems to eight-speaker stereo surround sound.

"Many of these changes are invisible to the consumer," said C.D. Tam, senior vice president of Motorola's Transportation Systems Group, the leading provider of semiconductor products to the global automotive industry. "All they know is the car is faster, more comfortable and doesn't use as much gasoline."

In fact, pop open the hood and strip down some high-end model such as a Mercedes Benz E Class, and you'll find as many as 80 microprocessors on board - more than twice the computing power of the average personal computer.

And the dollar growth of semiconductor content per vehicle has nearly doubled, from $540 for the most sophisticated vehicles in 1985 to $1,100 for a top-of-the-line model in 1995. That figure is expected to hit a whopping $3,000 for luxury cars in 2006, according to Motorola.

Driving sales of today's increasingly high-tech vehicles are consumer demand and automakers' attempts to differentiate their products with the latest "gee-whiz" features. Chrysler Corp., for example, started installing air bags in all its cars soon after Congress began talking about making the safety devices mandatory. Other automakers quickly followed suit.

Stricter rules on emissions controls and rising insurance rates are also pushing automakers to come up with more efficient and safer cars. In the United States, insurance companies will typically give policy holders a discount for such things as alarms and engine-immobilizing systems. And in Europe, insurance companies won't insure cars without immobilizers at all.

Although buying a car has always been a deeply personal decision, that relationship is now getting deeper as cars become fully customizable to meet individual demands for comfort and style. And the same car can be customized by any number of drivers when they slip behind the wheel.

Motorola foresees a day when the typical car owner uses a smart card, a credit-card size device that contains a lot of personal and financial data, to drive the computer car of the future.

The card will open the door, adjust the driver's seat and tune the radio to a favorite station. Then it will start the engine, use a global positioning satellite to chart a course and read your e-mail messages aloud.

Rear-view mirrors will be replaced by rear-view video cameras. With developments in crash-avoidance systems, which use sensors to detect surrounding objects and other vehicles, it's theoretically possible you won't even have to steer. You could just kick back and watch your on-board TV or surf the Internet.

In case of an accident, air bags will shoot out, not just in the front, but also in the back and over the windows. Because of concerns about fatalities due to air bags, sensors in the passenger seats will communicate whether the occupant is a toddler or a bag of groceries.