Your budget is tight, you don't own any wheels, and the highway beckons. What to do? Pick up a car from a "driveaway" company - and you might even get paid for your effort.

According to the Interstate Commerce Commission (I.C.C.), the nation's drivesway companies moved more than 50,000 cars in 1975 and the number is going up. Driveway's success hinges on the simple fact that while some motorists prefer long trips, others hate them. Many who don't love to drive are willing to pay to have their cars transported. Those who do like to drive - or have to - provide the companies with their "chauffeurs." The companies act as agents for the two parties.

Recently I drove halfway across the country to Minneapolis for Auto Driveaway Company, one of the three largest in the field. The other two are "Nationwide Auto Transtporters Inc. and AAACON Auto Transporters Inc. AAACON offers a 24-hour tape-recorded phone message listing cars available. All three are in the D.C. Yellow Pages.

Here's how it works: The driver, after being checked out by the company (driving record, insurance data and a rather lengthy application form) makes a cash deposit for the car that ranges between $50 and $100 depending on the car or company - the deposit is fully refunded upon delivery of the car to its owner.

The agency then gives the driver one full tank of gas and sends him on his way with a liberal time limit for delivery. For example, Auto Driveway allows seven days for delivering a car to Los Angeles from Washington, unless there is an accident or major breakdown, which leaves some time for side trips.

All other expenses incurred along the way - gas, meals and lodging - are paid by the driver. Expenses involving the car itself - tires and repairs - are refunded upon presentation of proper receipts.

Because I wanted to get to Minneapolis, I selected Auto Driveaway Company, which wanted a car taken there immediately; but in the process I learned that the various companies had literally hundreds of cars, from sub compacts and compacts up to luxury models, available for delivery to a variety of destinations.

John Richmond, agent for the Washington branch of Auto Driveaway, outlined the regulations over the phone and asked me to come down to fill out an application. Any responsible driver at least 18 years, old (although Auto Driveaway requires its drivers to be 21) can usually qualify to drive.

On the day of departure, Richmond supplied me with keys, road maps, suggested routes, phone numbers to call in case of trouble and numbers of the other offices in the string of cities I was planning to visit. From that point on I was "plugged in" to the system.

With over 250 branch offices between the three companies, it is almost impossible not to be able to find a car to drive at any given time. In Minneapolis, while checking on the availability of a car to continue on to Los Angeles (I finally decided to fly to save time), I learned that the agent for Auto Driveaway needed a car driven to Los Angeles so badly that she was offering a bonus. Besides the first tankful of gas free, she was willing to pay $30 extra for gas and expenses.

According to Richmond, 75 per cent of his drivers fall between the ages of 21 and 35 and are either students who need transportation home during holidays or young people who simply want inexpensive travel. Other companies agreed with these statistics. A spokesman for AAACON Auto Transporters Inc. said that during the summer months many of their drivers are foreign-born residents who want a good, close and inexpensive look at our country.

Most of the driveaway companies have applied for certification by the I.C.C. and are authorized to do business. This does not mean, however, that all companies in the field are, in fact, operating legally. Many smaller, regional firms have not received I.C.C. certification and are subject to stiff penalties if discovered and prosecuted, according to an I.C.C. official.

Since all drivers are essentially "contracted" by the company, insurance coverage for accident and liability and other provisions vary according to each company's rules. Personal injury insurance is rarely included. Therefore, it is essential to thoroughly check the facts beforehand, paying special attention to the precondition voucher on the car to avoid being charged with a scrape or fault that was there before you started out.

For those who want to have their cars driven to destination, the rates for the service usually depend upon the distance covered, unless the company has set a flat rate.

The average cost of having a car driven to Chicago from Washington is about $100. Auto Driveaway charges $185 to deliver a car to Los Angeles from this area. Rates must be filed with the ICC, which monitors charges to avoid exorbitant pricing.

Before signing with any particular company, be sure you understand the insurance coverage and the procedure for breakdowns. The ICC is constantly involved in investigations of disputes that stem simply from misunderstandings between negotiating parties.

An ICC spokesman said there are numerous instances where drivers had "ripped off" the company and owners they were driving for, by switching tires or batteries on the car or reporting a false breakdown miles from the drop-off point in order to buy more time for free travel. The official added that the opportunity for such tricks depends mainly on a company's ability to discriminate in its choice of drivers.

Asked about the "character makeup" of his drivers, Richmond of Auto Driveaway referred to his lengthy screening process."We don't have much trouble with bad drivers," he said. "After all, that is our job."