Pressure-volume (P-V) curves of the respiratory system allow determination of compliance and lower and upper inflection points (LIP and UIP, respectively). To minimize lung trauma in mechanical ventilation the tidal volume should be limited to the P-V range between LIP and UIP. An automated low flow inflation (ALFI) technique, using a computer-controlled Servo Ventilator 900C, was compared with a more conventional technique using a series of about 20 different inflated volumes (Pst-V curve). The pressure in the distal lung (Pdist) was calculated by subtraction of resistive pressure drop in connecting tubes and airways. Compliance (Cdist), Pdist(LIP), and Pdist(UIP) were derived from the Pdist-V curve and compared with Cst, Pst(LIP), and Pst(UIP) derived from the Pst-V curve. Nineteen sedated, paralyzed patients (10 with ARDS and 9 with ARF) were studied. We found: Cdist = 2.3 + 0.98 x Cst ml/cm H2O (r = 0.98); Pdist(LIP) = 0.013 + 1.09 x Pst(LIP) cm H2O (r = 0.96). In patients with ARDS: Pdist(UIP) = 4.71 + 0.84 x Pst(UIP) cm H2O (r = 0.94). In ARF, we found differences in UIP between the methods, but discrepancies occurred above tidal volumes and had little practical importance. They may reflect that Pdist comprises dynamic phenomena contributing to pressure in the distal lung at large volumes. Compliance, but not LIP and UIP, could be accurately determined without subtraction of resistive pressure from the pressure measured in the ventilator. We conclude that ALFI, which is fully automated and needing no ventilator disconnection, gives useful clinical information.