-- There are two ways to look at a premier automotive exposition, such as the North America International Auto Show that opens here this week.
The first is obvious -- a visual feast of glitz, dazzle and dreams, the latter including futuristic mobiles such as the Infiniti Triant, a sports coupe with power gullwing doors and swiveling headlamps that never will sit in a new-car showroom.
The second is an exploration beneath the metal and, in one notable case, beneath the outer skins of tires, where there is market-ready, new technology that can change the way we use and view cars and trucks.
Finding the technological gems involves tracking down the eggheads and gonzo techies -- people such as Terry Gettys, president of Michelin North America's Research and Development Corp., or Gary Wend, executive director of the U.S. Army Automotive Center. They are the folks who either shy away from the cameras, or whom the cameras generally ignore in favor of sexier shots.
But the technologies pedaled by Gettys and Wend are something to behold. Take, for example, an ugly, little wiggle-work of a thing that Michelin plans to implant in its tires, beginning in 2005. Gettys calls it a "radio frequency identification transponder," or an RFID.
The RFID technology allows vital tire identification information -- such as tire size, type, serial number, date of manufacture and speed rating -- to be stored on a chip the size of a match head. The chip is in the center of two wiggled filaments, which actually constitute the transponder's antenna.
The information on the RFID chip, which can be read by a receiver held or positioned up to 30 inches away from the tire, corresponds to the vehicle identification number. That makes the tire "uniquely identifiable with the vehicle," according to Gettys and his colleagues.
Had that technology existed three years ago, it could have put a lot of lawyers out of business in the Ford Motor Co./Bridgestone-Firestone tire controversy, in which defective Bridgestone tires were blamed for causing scores of deaths on rollover crashes of 1990s-model Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles.
A large part of that controversy stemmed from arguments over which tires were subject to recall and which tires were okay. RFID technology could have pinpointed the exact batch of tires that had the problem, Michelin officials say.
"This innovation has attractive implications for tire makers, for vehicle makers and for consumers," said Tom Chubb, vice president of new product development for Michelin's Automotive Industries Division. "For vehicle and tire makers, it means a simple . . . way to comply with federal record keeping standards, including those of the new Transportation, Recall, Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD). For consumers, it means convenience and confidence," Chubb said.
The TREAD Act was enacted by Congress in response to the Ford/Bridgestone-Firestone fiasco, in which accountability fell victim to counter-charges between the car company and its tire supplier over who was at fault for the rollovers.
In its initial form, Michelin's RFID technology will be of use only to technicians in vehicle service bays. But Michelin researchers said the RFID chip eventually could be given enough intelligence to communicate directly with vehicle owners and drivers -- telling them if the tires are properly inflated, overheated, overloaded, or if tire tread is dangerously worn. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. has a similar innovation that will be available on tires beginning in 2004, according to company spokesman Dave Russ.
The RFID technology might also be installed on the U.S. Army's new Smart Truck II, a super-sport-utility vehicle that the Army's Wend says is designed to "be everything to all governmental services," including those that go to war and those work to save lives.
Smart Truck II, which undergoes federal testing in about four months, is a technology-laden, modular SUV based on a Chevrolet Silverado 2500 truck chassis. But it's not a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It's a three-axle, six-wheel drive model capable of carrying five tons of stuff, including a battery of 48, laser-guided Spike missiles and a remote controlled Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) called the Pointer. The Pointer can stay in the air for five hours surveying a 10-square-mile area. Suffice it to say that the Pointer can also do a lot of other things, good and bad, depending on your point of view.
Besides being outfitted for war, the Smart Truck II chassis, which costs about $75,000, can be equipped for humanitarian purposes, according to Wend. "It all depends on what is needed to do what is needed to be done," he said.
For example, rescue workers in natural disasters often complain that they go into areas where radio frequencies are either inconsistent or incompatible with their radio communications networks, making it difficult for them to coordinate rescue activities. They also complain that they also are forced to work with inadequate light.
Smart Truck II can be loaded with sophisticated communications equipment that blends radio frequencies, interprets or cancels them -- depending on the need.
"It comes with enough lights and enough power to light up three city blocks," Wend said.
Warren Brown will be taking your questions Live Online from the floor of the Detroit auto show at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.