cartoon with tongue planted firmly in cheek? Its irreverent take on modern values through the prism of an imaginary foot-powered Stone Age is a comic howl that things never change.

Mercedes-Benz is figuratively bringing the world out of the Stone Age. If you have been running and stopping your car on absolute foot-power, the latest safety feature on the 2000 S-Class may seem more like a scene from the Jetsons than the Flintstones.

The S-Class for the new millennium marks the debut of the world's first 'smart' cruise control system. It employs conventional cruise control, but automatically maintains a pre-set distance behind the car in front with the help of a radar sensor.

By late 1999 a new S-Class comes to the U.S., it will be equipped with the smart cruise system. It will be called Distronic distance control system. While the optional Distronic system can vary the accelerator (like conventional cruise) to maintain the desired following distance, the new system also can apply partial braking automatically if needed (without the heel burn that Fred experienced) -another first for the auto industry.

Available now in Europe for consumers in both the new S430 and S500, the smart cruise system can maintain a set distance from the vehicle in front as well as a set speed. The S-Class driver sets a desired minimum distance to be maintained behind vehicles ahead, as well as a desired cruising speed. If distance is reduced for any reason (the vehicle ahead slows down, or a brontosaurus enters the lane), the intelligent adaptive cruise control system automatically eases up or applies up to 20% braking power.

A grille-mounted radar sensor monitors the traffic situation ahead up to a distance of 164 yds. (150 m). When the sensor detects a vehicle in front, the interior display shows both vehicles and displays the safe distance via pictograph.

The Distronic system was developed for Mercedes-Benz in Germany as a collaboration of suppliers that includes: Auburn Hills, MI-based Automotive Distance Control, developer of the pulse-Doppler radar system; Daimler-Benz's Temic; a joint development effort by ITT Automotive, which specializes in braking issues (now Continental Teves AG & Co.) and the optics company Leica, longtime developers of laser systems. A quick survey of suppliers shows that similar systems are being developed.

LucasVarity Automotive has developed an adaptive cruise control system that is the result of a joint venture with Thomson-CSF Radars and Contre Measures, based in France. "Thomson has its roots in the defense industry, so this is actually the product of a marriage between LucasVarity and the defense industry," says a LucasVarity spokesperson.

General Motors Corp.'s Delphi Automotive Systems - in collaboration with Delco Electronics - has developed a similar system for Jaguar; and Robert Bosch Corp. is responsible for development of the traction control and electronic stability program that are related components of the Distronic system that Mercedes employs. A Bosch Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) system will debut on a BMW AG vehicle in 1999.

Of course this ACC system hasn't yet propelled us to the futuristic autos of Jetsons' era. Drivers still must take on primary navigation, including the avoidance of those pesky fender benders. But the increased safety and lower stress may just make for more of a "yabba-dabba-doo" time on the highway.