Simulating a safer drive

Ford Motor Company will soon open a new high-tech $10 million driving simulator laboratory to study driver workload and distraction issues related to new in-vehicle electronic devices.

The new facility, dubbed VIRTTEX for VIRtual Test Track Experiment, has been designed to allow researchers measure a driver’s ability to cope with common traffic situations while using cellular telephones, navigation systems and other in-car electronic equipment.

The first VIRTTEX study, to begin early in 2001, will focus on the demand various in-vehicle tasks place on a driver. The goal is to discover better ways to measure the distraction potential of human/vehicle interfaces of the future.

VIRTTEX works by using advanced computers to create a virtual driving environment. A specially instrumented Ford Taurus will be the first vehicle bolted inside the simulator, allowing participants to sit behind the wheel and begin driving according to the test instructions. During a simulated drive, researchers will measure the driver’s ability to cope with an array of traffic situations while using in-vehicle electronic equipment.

In addition to collecting vehicle data on steering, speed control and braking, all tests will be recorded by five in-car ‘lipstick’ cameras set up to monitor and record the road scene and the driver’s hand, eye and foot movement.

The simulator dome houses five projectors – three for the forward view and two for the rear – that rotate with the dome and provide a 300 degree computer-generated view of the road.

The images are accompanied by digital sound synthesisers that provide powertrain as well as wind and road noise for an even more realistic driving environment.

The vehicle in the simulator is attached to a hydraulic motion platform, called a hexapod, that can simulate the motion associated with more than 90 percent of the typical miles driven in the US including spinouts.

‘It won’t replace real-world testing, but the simulator provides us the ability to have non-professional drivers evaluate certain devices before anything is finalised, ultimately resulting in a better product for our customers,’ said Jeff Greenberg, Staff Technical Specialist and chief of VIRTTEX at Ford’s Research Laboratory.

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