LOS ANGELES -- General Motors Corp. thinks it has the answer to freeway traffic jams: talking computers with screens that help drivers maneuver through the trouble spots.

The automaker, along with the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, this week launched a pilot program that will use computers installed in 25 Oldsmobiles to help ease traffic congestion along the Santa Monica Freeway. Through voice messages and written communication, the computers will inform drivers about traffic jams, alternative routes, major accidents and other transportation problems.

Initially, the system, called Pathfinder, will only have information for commuters along a 14-mile stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway where an estimated 337,000 cars pass each day. The computers will collect their information from the California Highway Patrol, electronic detectors on the freeway, television cameras mounted along the road, air surveillance and traffic reports on local radio stations, as well as the Oldsmobile drivers themselves.

The software that makes all this possible was developed by Rockville, Md.-based Farradyne Systems Inc., the same company that designed the system that governs all the traffic lights in the District of Columbia, according to Philip J. Tarnoff, president of the company. Farradyne was awarded a contract by the Federal Highway Administration to design the Pathfinder system.

Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Elaine L. Chao test drove the car along downtown streets on Monday.

The map on the computer screen moved as the car moved, displaying surrounding streets, traffic spots and the direction in which the car was traveling.

"With this Intelligent Vehicle Highway System, Los Angeles leads the nation in revolutionizing transportation in the 1990s," Chao told a press conference.

The cars, driven by state workers during the first six-month phase of the project, receive updated information every minute. Drivers are given the option of getting off the freeway onto alternate routes, part of an effort to spread traffic along several streets to help reduce congestion.

The California Transportation Department will be evaluating the experimental system over the course of the next year, said Farradyne's Tarnoff, and will make a determination then whether to extend the project. Eventually, GM hopes to offer such a computer system as an option on its cars.

Although this is the first test of its kind in this country, a similar program is expected to be launched in Orlando, Fla., next year. That system, called TravTek, will be installed in 100 cars also provided by GM. It will tell rental car drivers the most convenient and least congested route to specified locations, such as tourist sites.