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On the (Virtual) Road

May 25, 2011

When the cab of a specially equipped Nissan Versa is lifted into place this fall, UMTRI scientists and engineers will complete work on installation of the institute's newest research tool--a state-of-the-art driving simulator. The instrumented car is just one part of an advanced facility that will be available to researchers not only at UMTRI but to other academic units at the University of Michigan.

The heart of the driving simulator is the software used to generate and control traffic scenarios. According to research professor Ray Bingham, chair of the UMTRI Simulator Committee, the new driving simulator will offer greater flexibility to graphically create and adapt driving scenarios based on research project goals. This makes the new technology particularly versatile.

"Driving simulators are versatile research tools that have been used for many purposes, including studies of distracted and impaired driving, drivers' responses to new in-vehicle technology, the effects of health conditions and medications on driving performance, cognitive development and decision-making, as well as many other topics," said Bingham.

Studies that lend themselves well to using a driving simulator are those that require conditions that may be too dangerous to test in the real world. Simulators are also ideal for understanding driver behavior or reactions to events on the road. They also provide the capacity to present drivers with very specific and carefully controlled situations so that driver behavior can be better understood.

The U-M Office of the Vice President for Research and UMTRI provided funds for the purchase of the new driving simulator, which represents an important investment in UMTRI's research capabilities. Nissan contributed the Versa that will be used in the simulator. UMTRI engineers are currently working to instrument the vehicle cab, which will eventually be lifted into place through second-story windows.

To operate the driving simulator, UMTRI technicians must first create a virtual world, which includes roads, intersections, buildings, and the movement of vehicles. The scenario is then projected on six floor-to-ceiling screens that surround a test subject, who drives the instrumented car. The car is instrumented with sensors and cameras that collect data at a rate of one megabyte per hour.

The simulator collects data on many variables relating to the simulated vehicle's position within the virtual environment, movement relative to other vehicles, and on driver performance. In addition, the new simulator will be equipped with a reliable four-camera eye-fixation system that can determine where a driver looks. This system will be useful in studies of hazard detection, driver distraction, and roadway scanning behavior of drivers, as well as other topics. Which variables are measured will be determined by the goals of each research study.

UMTRI's new driving simulator will be a resource for faculty across the University or Michigan who are interested in using it in their research in collaboration with UMTRI. For more information regarding the UMTRI driving simulator and its use, please contact Ray Bingham.

Pictured: A young driver maneuvers through traffic in UMTRI's current driving simulator.

Photo by Jennifer LaRose, UMTRI Young Driver Behavior and Injury Prevention Group