by Jim Kerr

Ford VIRTTEX driving simulator

Ten million dollars, six months of development, and it was my turn to drive. I climbed into the driver’s seat of this special Ford Taurus sedan, did up my seat belt, and awaited instructions from the Ford engineer sitting beside me. I was about to drive several miles down the highway, and never move more than a few meters from where I started.

I was sitting inside VIRTTEX, one of the newest additions to Ford’s Scientific Research Laboratory located in Dearborn, Michigan. VIRTTEX is the acronym for VIRtual Test Track EXperiment, a virtual reality machine that simulates a typical drive down the highway. This isn’t a high tech video game for racecar fans. Instead, this huge machine has a very serious purpose; it tests drivers and how they cope with distractions when they drive.

You may have heard about the dangers of using cell phones while driving. New York has already banned the use of cell phones while driving, and other states like Minnesota are cracking down on drivers that are not paying attention to their driving. Studies in the U.S. by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration have found 25% of traffic accidents were related to inattentive driving, distracted because they are doing something else. Everything from putting on makeup to talking on the phone. A lot of the distractions are obviously dangerous, but now Ford scientists are ready to use VIRTTEX to determine how dangerous some tasks are, and how vehicles can be improved to make normal driving tasks as safe as possible.

The VIRTTEX simulator is a large spherical chamber held 11 feet off the floor by six computer controlled hydraulic rams. The computer operator monitors the simulator as it moves up, down, and back and forth to simulate acceleration, braking, and turning maneuvers. Inside the chamber, bolted to the floor is a full size 2001 Taurus, with the drivetrain, fuel system, and airbags removed. Almost any car or truck that Ford makes can fit into the simulator, enhancing the realism of the

Inside the chamber, constructed of honeycomb carbon fibre with a fireproof Nomex covering, projectors display a divided highway with two lanes each way. Vehicles can be seen in front and behind. With instructions from the Ford VIRTTEX specialist beside me, I turned the key, started the engine, put the transmission in drive, and accelerated down the highway. I was to follow the vehicle in front and if it changed lanes, I was to do likewise.

VIRTTEX occupant navigates the virtual roadway.

The scene displayed around me was a little graphic, rather than true reality, but I soon forget about that because the sense of driving was very real. Jeff Greenberg, VIRTTEX technical specialist, told us that the graphics projected inside the sphere were done with the same technology used to train fighter pilots, but better technology developed for video games is now available and is being adapted for use in VIRTTEX.

What amazed me most was the feel of cracks in the pavement. You could see them on the road (screen), and feel them in the car. The sound of the motor was right for my speed. There was even some wind noise over the car! Turn the wheel and the car turned. It didn’t just feel like it turned, I actually thought it was turning. I may have been inside a simulator, but it felt like I was on the open highway.

After a few minutes of driving, I was asked to do some tasks. Tune the radio to a different station. Select a different CD and play track 3. Pick up a cell phone and dial home. All this time I was supposed to also maintain the same speed and stay in the same lane as the vehicle in front of me.

VIRTTEX control console

During testing, the VIRTTEX computers monitor how much the vehicle weaves in the lane, where your eyes are looking, if you stray out of your lane, and other vehicle parameters. What they are really monitoring is the mental awareness of the driver.

So why use a virtual reality machine when Ford has a whole fleet of cars and test track facilities to do the testing? The answer is consistency. With the simulator, they have complete control over the driving environment. There is no change in road conditions, weather conditions, traffic conditions, tires, or suspension. Ideally, the only variable will be the driver. Another advantage of the simulator is that drivers can be pushed to their performance limits. Tasks can be done that could not be done safely on even a closed test track.

Research done with the VIRTTEX simulator will enable Ford to design vehicle interfaces and systems so drivers will be able to pay more attention to driving. Some systems may take too much driver attention away from the road and even though there is customer demand, the system may be disabled while the vehicle is moving. In other cases, the interface can be integrated, or redesigned to make it safer while driving. That is what VIRTTEX is all about: improving the driver’s environment to promote safe driving.

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