1994 Discover Awards

Our fifth annual awards honor innovative technologies, and the men and women behind them, in seven categories: automotive and transportation; aviation and aerospace; computer hardware and electronics; computer software; environment; sight; and sound.

By Al Gore|Saturday, October 01, 1994
A year ago I wrote in DISCOVER's October issue that technological innovation was a powerful engine driving our national economic growth. I called for continued research, development, and investment in the new technologies that will lead us into the twenty-first century, and I outlined President Clinton's vision for the National Information Infrastructure--a seamless web of communication networks, computers, data bases, and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users' fingertips and will forever change the way we live, learn, work, and communicate with each other.

One year later, technological innovation continues to be a priority for our nation. In fact, with the countries of the world becoming increasingly interdependent, the need to create an information superhighway has reached beyond our borders. In the future, a global "network of networks" will be essential for expanded business and trade opportunities, improved education and health care, preservation and promotion of democracy, and the sustainable development of all countries in our family of nations.

Let me explain with an example.

This year I was privileged to witness the inauguration of the first freely elected majority president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. It was an incredible, tremendous turning point for the human race. An extraordinary range of emotions filled my heart and millions of other people's as we watched a moment in history no one will ever forget.

With that election came the end of apartheid. It forever changed the country, opening doors of opportunity that had been closed for decades. The election swept in not only a new majority leader but a new partnership between the United States and South Africa--one of renewed diplomatic and economic relations.

In the coming decades, as South Africa struggles to improve its economy, house its people, educate its children, and care for its sick, the country will turn to the world for support that can be provided in large part through a Global Information Infrastructure.

A GII could, as President Mandela envisions, help create a South Africa where people's energies and talents can blossom in a free society: entrepreneurs could buy or sell their products in a global information marketplace, enhancing the country's economic and business development; building materials for housing could be ordered at the lowest cost from anywhere in the world; school-children could access information in the finest libraries; and the sick could be treated right in their homes.

The concept of a GII was unveiled in a speech I gave to the International Telecommunications Union in Buenos Aires this past March. I called on legislators, regulators, and business leaders to build and operate a GII that would circle the globe with information superhighways, transcending the barriers of time and distance, of wealth and poverty, of developed and developing countries, and on which all people could travel.

Like our National Information Infrastructure, a GII would consist of hundreds of different networks and use many different technologies, including satellite, fiber optics, video, and telephone. The goal would be to transmit information with the speed of light from the largest city to the smallest village on every continent in every part of our world. The GII would be built according to an ambitious agenda that would help all governments, in their own sovereign nations and through international cooperation, take part in this revolution--a democratic effort not dictated or built by a single country.

In a sense, the GII will be a metaphor for democracy itself. Representative democracy does not work with an all-powerful central government, arrogating all decisions to itself. That is why communism collapsed and apartheid fell. Instead, representative democracy relies on the assumption that the best way for a nation to make its political decisions is for each citizen to have the power to control his or her own life. To do that, people must have available the information they need. They must be allowed to express their conclusions in free speech and in votes that are combined with those of millions of others. That's what guides the system as a whole.

The GII will promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision making. And it will greatly promote the ability of nations to cooperate with one another.

Just as the GII will enhance democracy, it will also promote economic growth. Already the information infra-structure is to our 1990s U.S. economy what the transportation infrastructure was to our mid- twentieth-century economy. A global information superhighway will revolutionize the world economy, too.

For example, the integration of computing and information networks in the U.S. economy makes our companies more productive, more competitive, and more adaptable to changing conditions. The economies of other nations will experience the same effects. By enabling service sectors to expand their range of products and their ability to respond to customer demands, the GII will expand business and economic opportunities worldwide.

This revolution is already taking place; the GII is being built, although many countries have yet to see any benefits. Digital telecommunications technology, fiber optics, and new, high-capacity satellite systems are transforming telecommunications. All over the world, under the seas and along the roads, pipelines, and railroads, companies are laying fiber-optic cable that carries thousands of telephone calls per second over a single strand of glass.

As the GII progresses, the basic tenets by which to guide its development must be set forth. Here in the United States, the development of the National Information Infrastructure is based on five key principles: to encourage private investment; to promote competition; to create a flexible regulatory framework that can keep pace with rapid technological and market changes; to provide open access to the network for all information providers; and, finally, to ensure universal service so that everyone can benefit from the network. But these principles are not unique to this country. Many are accepted internationally, and they should inform and aid the development of the GII.

For example, the president and I believe strongly that every classroom, library, hospital, and clinic in the United States must be connected to the National Information Infrastructure by the end of the century. As a nation we cannot tolerate--nor in the long run can we afford- -a society in which some children become fully educated and others do not, in which some patients benefit from shared medical expertise and others do not, in which some people have access to lifetime learning and job training and others do not.

One of the first objectives of the GII should be to determine how every school and library in every country can be connected to the Internet, the world's largest computer network, in order to create a Global Digital Library. Each library could maintain a server containing books and journals in electronic form, along with indexes to help users find other materials. This will allow millions of students, scholars, and businesspeople to find the information they need, whether it be in Albania, Ecuador, or South Africa. It will help insure that the gap between rich and poor and between developed and developing countries is bridged, and that all people of the world can benefit from the information superhighway.

The Global Information Infrastructure offers instant communication to the great human family. It can provide us the information we need to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world. By linking clinics and hospitals, it will guarantee that doctors have access to the best possible information on diseases and treatments. By providing early warning of natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and typhoons, it can save the lives of thousands of people. By linking villages and towns, it can help people organize and work together on local and regional issues ranging from improving water supplies to preventing deforestation.

To promote, to protect, to preserve freedom and democracy, we must make technological advancement an integral part of every nation's development. Each link we create strengthens the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world. By opening markets to stimulate the development of the GII, we open lines of communication. By opening lines of communication, we open minds.

On the following pages, the work of scientists and engineers is showcased in the fifth annual DISCOVER Awards for Technological Innovation. It is the work of people whose inventions open our minds. Their efforts, along with those of others, will allow us to build an information infrastructure and lead our world into the twenty-first century.

For the 1994 DISCOVER Awards, the magazine's editorial staff selected 35 finalists from more than 4,000 nominees submitted by companies, research institutions, and DISCOVER readers. The winners in each of seven categories--Automotive & Transportation, Aviation & Aerospace, Computer Hardware & Electronics, Computer Software, Environment, Sight, and Sound-- were then chosen by independent judges.

This year the DISCOVER Awards program has been expanded to include an interactive display of the winning and finalist technologies at Epcot's Innoventions pavilion at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

And the winners are . . .

Imagine a car that automatically turns off its engine when it's coasting or waiting at a traffic light, then turns it back on at the slightest touch of the accelerator. Then imagine how fuel efficient and environmentally kind this car would be. That's what the engineers at Volkswagen did, and why they built the Golf Ecomatic.

Volkswagen's Ecomatic system--built into a standard Volkswagen Golf production car--uses a diesel engine, which requires less cranking to start than a gasoline-powered model. When the driver releases pressure on the gas pedal, the Ecomatic's complex of sensors and switches disengages the transmission and shuts off the engine after 1.5 seconds of inactivity. Pressure on the accelerator instantly and seamlessly brings the engine back to life. To make possible the intricate interplay of engine and transmission, the clutch pedal has been replaced by a pressure-sensitive microswitch in the shift lever. To change gears, the driver merely grabs the stick, which activates the automated clutch, and moves it in the normal way.

The Ecomatic's driving performance compares with that of a conventional Golf, but in other respects the car definitely outperforms the Golf. In urban tests, the Ecomatic boosted fuel economy by 22 percent while reducing carbon monoxide emissions by 36 percent and hydrocarbons by 17 percent. It also cut emissions of carbon dioxide, a chief greenhouse-effect villain, by 22 percent. The Ecomatic helps with noise pollution as well: an engine that's shut off doesn't contribute to traffic noise.

"It changes your driving habits," says Ulrich Seiffert, a Volkswagen research supervisor in Wolfsburg, Germany. With a regular car, "you keep your foot on the gas all the way up to a stoplight because you know that coasting with the engine in gear will slow you down. With the Ecomatic, you're freewheeling. You make it to the next intersection without anyone knowing your engine is shut off, and you're more adapted to the traffic flow."

With the push of a button, the Golf's Ecomatic function can be turned off, which is helpful when a driver wants the assistance of the engine to brake when coasting down steep hills. Volkswagen is currently turning out fewer than 30 Ecomatics a day, all in Europe, where the car is priced about $1,000 higher than a standard Golf. But the Ecomatic boasts more than 50 miles per gallon, so it's more economical in the long term. With U.S. gas prices relatively low and diesel fuel available for the most part only at truck stops, Volkswagen isn't rushing production of an Ecomatic stateside. It may take another energy crisis for most Americans to witness this ingenious technology.

finalists

HALFWAY THERE

Subaru's SRD II Concept Car

With the help of the California Department of Transportation, Japanese automaker Subaru plans to double urban road space during rush hour--not by laying more concrete but by halving the width of cars.

"Studies indicate that 76 percent of all cars in southern California are occupied by only one person during peak traffic hours," notes Danny Ellis, chief designer with Subaru Research and Design in Garden Grove, California. Subaru's solution to gridlock and its attendant pollution: the SRD II, a carbon-fiber one-passenger car that resembles the fuselage of a bubble-top jet fighter. The SRD II is designed on the assumption that large-scale efforts to promote carpooling are destined to fail--they go against the desire of most Americans to roam free in their own cars.

The SRD II uses an off-the-shelf 660-cubic-centimeter Japanese auto engine that will be recast in lightweight aluminum and powered by cleaner natural gas. The entire car weighs just 1,300 pounds and could retail for less than $9,000.

Ellis expects the SRD II to be used by people just to go to and from work, so it should help reduce wear and tear on a family's larger main car. He claims that Subaru could put the descendants of its SRD II in showrooms within five years. Spartan as it might appear, the designer says, "this is one idea that actually has a chance of catching on."

A TANK FULL OF DECAF

ChrysIer's Expresso Concept Car

In cities, the only place left to build is often up, not out. Chrysler thinks the same is true for urban cars, so it created the Expresso. The company started with a wheelbase one foot shorter than that of its already compact Neon production car and then lopped another foot off the Expresso by shortening the extrusions of the body. Storage and passenger room isn't lost, though; instead it's been made vertical. The Expresso prototype rises to the height of a minivan, allowing more elaborate use of interior space--including a lift-back storage area and under-seat luggage space.

The engine and transmission are standard Neon equipment, but the Expresso has a few unique touches. A satellite navigation system guides the way to unfamiliar destinations, while those not behind the wheel can play video games on the car's computerized entertainment center.

But those are extras; efficiency of various kinds was Chrysler's chief goal in creating the stubby sedan. "The car is lighter because it's shorter and therefore could get better mileage in cities, which is the environment we designed it for," says Ray Cannara, Chrysler's staff designer in Auburn Hills, Michigan. "If you were to replace all the taxis in New York City with Expressos, you'd gain up to 50 miles of roadway." Now, about replacing those drivers . . .

SIDESWIPED

VoIvo's Side Impact Air Bags

Automotive air bags mounted on steering wheels and in dashboards can dramatically reduce injuries from front-end collisions, so it's no surprise that they are becoming more common in production cars. But engineers have long been stymied in developing a means to protect drivers from side-impact collisions--which are responsible for more than one-third of all passenger-car collision fatalities. The trouble has always been finding the right place to mount them. Volvo, it seems, has finally found a good answer.

Led by Stig Pilhall, Volvo engineers in Gothenburg, Sweden, realized that the obvious place was in the door. The problem was that they needed a very large bag because you can't anticipate whether the driver will be sitting close to the wheel, stretched far back, or somewhere in between. And the bigger the bag has to be, the longer it takes to inflate.

So instead of developing a door-mounted air bag, the design team produced a system in which an air bag pops out from a seam along the outside edge of each of the front seats. This guarantees the bag's proximity to the driver's or passenger's torso, so that the bag can act as a cushioned barrier to a crunching door. When the car's frame is bent enough to make contact with the seat side, a sensor trips a firing pin that sets off a tiny explosion inside a tube lined with a pyrotechnic powder that burns at the rate of 7,000 feet per second. When the flash reaches two gas generators mounted in the seat back, the 6-by-12-inch bag inflates. The entire process takes just 12 milliseconds. This side-impact protection system will debut in Volvo 850 Turbo sedans and wagons before the year is out, with other models to be equipped next year. On models for which the protection system is not standard, Volvo expects the option to cost around $500.

SEA QUEST

Woods HoIe's Robotic Sub

Ocean "hot vents"--ruptures in the seafloor found mainly at the junctions of crustal plates through which magma oozes--are home to a "sulfide, nonsolar ecology that may be the last remnant of the pre-oxygen atmosphere of Earth," says Albert Bradley, a senior engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "They're of great scientific interest, but sadly, with the current state of the world economy we can't afford to send many scientists to the deep ocean floor right now. ABE's job is to monitor when we can't."

ABE, the Autonomous Benthic Explorer, is a 5-foot-high, 12-foot- long automated observatory that can remain submerged to depths of more than 20,000 feet for as long as a year, without a support ship and without the tether common to most other undersea probes. Bradley organized the three- person team that built ABE, and the robot made its maiden voyage in March 1993.

ABE can be programmed to take water samples, temperature and magnetic activity readings, photos, and other records at regular intervals during a long-term solo mission. It moves on its own, triangulating its position from three acoustic sounders forming a tricornered boundary within which the craft operates. After making its daily survey of the sulfur-laden waters of a hot-vent area, ABE can retire some distance away to a less corrosive environment to await its next foray.

Judges

Janet Guthrie--First woman to race in the Indianapolis 500; former aerospace engineer.

James R. Healey--Automotive editor, USA Today.

Maryann Keller--President, Society of Automotive Analysts; managing director of the investment firm Furman Selz.

Shirley Muldowney--Drag racer; three-time National Hot Rod Association world champion.

Danny Sullivan--Race car driver; 1985 winner of the Indianapolis 500; 1988 national champion.
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