In the (virtual) driver's seat
New driving simulator a university resource
University of Michigan researchers representing several academic disciplines visited UMTRI in October to get a firsthand look at the institute's new driving simulator facility. The state-of-the-art facility, installed in 2012, represents the latest in simulator technology.
While housed and operated by UMTRI, the simulator is a resource available to university faculty and outside organizations. Research professor Ray Bingham, chair of the UMTRI Simulator Committee, anticipates that the new facility will be used by faculty from the medical school, public health, and engineering disciplines, among others, for research in collaboration with UMTRI.
"The UMTRI driving simulator is a powerful research tool in driving safety, human factors, and roadway design studies but is also applicable to many other areas of research, such as the effects of health conditions and medications on task performance, cognitive development and functioning, decision-making, peer influences, and many other areas," says Bingham.
"Simulator data, which provide a detailed assessment of driving performance, can be coupled with other data, such as physiological activity, brain function, or hormone levels, to test a broad variety of hypotheses," he added.
The heart of UMTRI's new driving simulator is the software used to generate and control traffic scenarios. Eight separate computers control UMTRI's driving simulator, which also features seven image generators.
To run the simulator, UMTRI technicians first create a virtual world that includes roads, intersections, buildings, vehicles, and even pedestrians. The scenario is then projected on three forward, two lateral, and one rear floor-to-ceiling screens around the driver, who sits in the cab of a specially- equipped Nissan Versa. The car is instrumented with sensors and cameras that collect data at a rate of one megabyte per hour.
The technology offers a great deal of flexibility to graphically create and adapt driving scenarios based on research goals. This makes the new technology particularly adaptable.
"We have the ability to change infrastructure--roadway design, lane markings, signage, and obstructions such as buildings and trees," explains UMTRI electronics engineer Mark Gilbert. "A wide variety of vehicles and actors may be scripted to behave in different ways, including passenger cars, heavy trucks, pedestrians, and cyclists."
As subjects operate the vehicle within this virtual world, a data acquisition system collects data on many variables including the vehicle's position and movement relative to other vehicles, as well as information on driver behavior. The system records data from the simulator's eye-tracking system and other sources, including six channels of video and two channels of audio, and synchronizes these data for analysis and review.
"A common time reference allows all objective measures to be synchronized," adds Gilbert, "so we're more efficient with using the data." The goals of each research study determine which variables are measured.
UMTRI's new driving simulator represents an important investment in the institute's research capabilities and plays a vital role in advancing UMTRI's new strategic plan. The driving simulator was made possible with financial support from the U-M Office of the Vice President for Research. Nissan contributed the cab of the Versa.
For more information regarding UMTRI's driving simulator and its use, contact Ray Bingham.
Photos courtesy of UMTRI Young Driver Behavior and Injury Prevention Group.