American commuters are approaching a turning point

FT. WORTH _ For commuters in America, the future is now.

Fed-up motorists are turning to technology to escape bumper-to-bumper traffic, or at least make it more palatable. Several scientists and transportation experts say it's a trend that's in its infancy; during the next 20 years, huge segments of the population may dramatically redefine how they live, work and drive.

Features once thought to be the stuff of science fiction could become part of everyday life. People may get around in cars that drive themselves. Employees may take part in conferences held in virtual worlds _ where co-workers across town, or around the globe, appear close enough to touch.

With technology taking the monotony out of the daily commute, workers may find that the physical distance between home and job no longer matters much. Families may live farther from city centers in search of a Utopian life, setting the stage for a renaissance in suburban fringe areas, as well as rural towns.

The know-how to make these changes is emerging quickly, somewhat under the radar of a traveling public that may be too busy surviving the rat race to see what's coming.

"There's a sense that things are changing, but I don't think there's a real strong perception of the opportunities and the potential," said Alan Pisarski, a Virginia-based expert on commuting trends. "The payoffs in terms of safety and energy are going to be just incredible."

The costs of traffic are clear: tens of thousands of fatalities a year, environmental damage, loss of productivity. Efforts by federal and state officials to add highway lanes and build their way out of the problem have failed.

With the help of technology, and a hankering to do things differently, motorists are ready to find their own way through the gridlock.

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