Affordable in-car navigation systems are heading this way, as I discovered while driving a specially equipped Ford Mondeo in rural Essex. All I had to do was tell the computer where I wanted to go. The car knew exactly where it was, thanks to information received trom GPS - global positioning satellites - and gave me crisp, clear instructions from start to finish. Technology's answer to the map was a compact disc.
Ford is very concerned about safety, of course, which is why the system uses concise spoken information and simple graphics. This is technology's virtually infallible and unflappable answer to a cool, confident passenger who knows the area well and is telling you where to go. At the other end of the scale is the driver with a map on the steering wheel or a list of scribbled instructions.
The drive in the Mondeo was a tantalising glimpse of the near future. Renault, Volvo, Volkswagen and other manufacturers have similar systems in the pipeline. BMW's version, up and running in Germany since last September, is due to make its British dbut next year. It will be added to the 750iL's list of standard equipment. Mercedes-Benz predicts a figure in the £1,000-£1,500 bracket when its Auto Pilot becomes available in the UK in 1996. Prices are likely to fall as demand increases. Ford talks in terms of the sort of money people now pay for good in-car audio equipment.
Richard Benbough has driven more than 10,000 computer-navigated miles in Britain, France and Germany since he started working on Ford's system in 1991. I soon realised my jokes about a degree in astrophysics being an essential qualification for tomorrow's drivers were a long way off the mark.
A screen about twice the size of a credit card formed part of the Mondeo's modified dashboard, to the left of the steering wheel. A simple, five- button control enabled me to key-in our destination. The route was first indicated on a map, then by spoken words that made the screen nothing more than a back-up. There was a distance countdown to the next instruction. When I missed a turn, in an attempt to fool the computer, it automatically figured out the best way to get me heading in the right direction again.
Signals from satellites orbiting 12,000 miles away were being picked up by a receiver the size of a cigarette packet. But "urban canyons" can interfere with reception, so the system also uses an electronic compass and precise sensors linked to the wheels.
The car's location was related to a digitised version of ye olde road atlas, which has been available in one form or another since John Ogilvie's pioneering Book of Roads was published in 1675. A landmark was reached last week, when the Ordnance Survey completed its computerised mapping of Britain. Details of one-way streets and other factors are being added by the likes of Bosch, Motorola and Philips, whose customers include Ford, BMW and Renault.
"In theory, you can get the whole of Britain, right down to street level, on one compact disc - and then it's only about half-full," said Rod Morement, Philips's marketing manager. "The spare capacity can be utilised to store information about the location of hotels, restaurants, garages, car parks, railway stations, airports and other places of interest to travellers.
"Most manufacturers are taking in-car navigation very seriously indeed. Prices will depend on what people want, from something relatively simple to a sophisticated system that will take you right to the door of 33 Acacia Avenue."
Between £400 and £500 is the target price for Volvo's Dynaguide Info System. This does not tell you where to go. Instead, it combines traffic information from police and other sources with a GPS receiver and a display that pin-points the car's position. Problems are indicated by coloured arrows. Dynaguide is tuned to the international RDS-TMC (Radio Data System Traffic Message Channel) network, which gives motorists messages in their own language, no matter where in Europe they are driving.
The best traffic information system available anywhere in the world is Trafficmaster YQ, which recently expanded its coverage to the whole of Britain's motorway network and 460 miles of trunk roads. Sensors mounted on bridges calculate average traffic speeds, then broadcast constantly updated warnings when the flow slows and jams start developing. The compact, detachable, dashboard-mounted unit reconciles clear graphics with a screen about 20 per cent bigger than a credit card.
At the start of a journey you can check the opening screen, which depicts the whole of the British Isles, or immediately scale the map right up to focus on the appropriate section of motorway. If there is a problem, it will be indicated by pulsing arrows marked from 25mph to zero. Trafficmaster YQ costs £149.95 plus £60 or £110 - six months or a year - for the "smart card" that is the unit's receiver.
Trafficmaster does not tell you how to get round a jam by leaving the M1 and taking the A43, or whatever. But the information supplied by its expanding network of more than 2,500 sensors is expected to dovetail with what the in-car navigation systems can provide. Together, they will alert the computer to a problem and tell it to work out a detour. Teething problems are not expected, because about 500,000 computerised navigators are already doing their stuff in Japan.
"That's a spin-off from the Japanese having television sets in cars," said Mr Morement. "The systems that have become so popular there are electronic maps with GPS receivers. They don't plan a route and guide you to your destination. The display has a cursor that tells you where you are and what direction you're heading in."
The cost of designing, building and launching a constellation of global positioning satellites just for the benefit of motorists would have made these systems impossibly expensive. Uncle Sam put them into orbit for military reasons, so we can thank the end of the Cold War for their availability. Words from Storm Command, General Sir Peter de la Billire's book about the Gulf war, came to mind while driving the Mondeo:
"Very soon it became apparent that two particular pieces of Allied equipment were potential war winners. One was the global positioning system (GPS) driven by satellites ... which gave tank commanders their position to a 10-figure grid reference, or to within about 15 metres on the face of the Earth."