May 9-15, 2003
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Putting pedal to virtual metal
Drivers, such as this young woman, get to cruise the virtual streets of Charlottesville behind the wheel of the simulator.
Photo by Fariss Samarrai
Drivers, such as this young woman, get to cruise the virtual streets of Charlottesville behind the wheel of the simulator.

By Fariss Samarrai

I drove through an intersection and off a cliff. The world went blue.

“Oh, no! I forgot to tell you to turn left at the stop sign,” said Brenda Corace, a research assistant in the U.Va. Center for Behavioral Medicine.

I survived. No impact, no pain, no blood and guts. I simply walked away. Which is the point.

I was driving a simulator.

Corace is a research assistant for a project that is testing a new driving simulator that may someday be the way you take a driving test. The simulator could test your reaction during an emergency, such as when a Mack truck suddenly crosses your path.

Soon it will be used in clinical trials to evaluate the effects of aging, medications, disease and alcohol on driving performance. And it could save lives by making people better drivers.

In the meantime, it’s making some people sick.

“That’s one of the problems we’re working on,” said Daniel Cox, professor of psychiatric medicine and lead investigator on the project. “Depending on age and health and other factors, about 5 to 50 percent of the people who drive the simulator get dizzy. Recently, one of them wanted to vomit.”

I didn’t have time to get sick; I drove off the cliff. But the “driving” experience is a bit like steering an IMAX screen. A lot of exaggerated motion, up close and personal. While steering and stepping on the “gas” and braking, I wanted to turn my head at odd angles and twist my tongue.

It was fun.

Engineers at Virginia Tech and Northeastern University designed and produced the simulator with a $120,000 grant from the Carilion Biomedical Institute. Driving evaluators from DMV served as consultants, and U.Va. is testing the equipment with human drivers and preparing for clinical trials once the kinks are worked out. It should be soon.

“The problem is that the eyes sense motion but the inner ear doesn’t,” said Cox. “A big part of our research right now is finding ways to diminish the sickness.”

The simulator looks like a fancy version of an arcade game, with a dashboard, driver’s seat, speedometer, gas pedal and brake. No seat belt needed. In one version the driver faces a 50-inch screen. Another version is a virtual reality headset that allows drivers to see traffic approaching from left and right. This is the one that makes most people dizzy, because of its narrow field of view.

In both versions drivers get to cruise the virtual streets of Charlottesville. The streets look real — but also animated — like something out of the movie “Toy Story.” As you drive, an “engine” rumbles, and the seat vibrates. Take a sharp turn and the “tires” squeal.

“The way people drive on a simulator is mirrored in the way they drive on the road,” Cox said.

I joked that people may be getting sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. He grinned, even if the simulation sickness problem is a real problem for him.
He showed me one scene where people get queasy — a street with tall trees on each side, creating a tunnel effect.

“We’re probably going to cut down those trees,” he said.

The simulated driving course begins at the Charlottesville DMV office. The driver steers from the parking lot, eventually onto Jefferson Park Avenue to Lynchburg Road to 5th Street. The trip continues on Interstate 64 before returning to DMV.

“This is a great tool for testing drivers,” Cox said. “On-road tests are inaccurate, subjective, and drivers experience different driving conditions and demands day-to-day and in different locations. A simulator is a way to standardize the test.”

Plus a simulator can test a driver’s reaction to a high-risk situation, such as when a pedestrian suddenly steps onto the road. This is something that can’t be built into an on-road test, and most would not want to see the results of a novice driver facing such a situation on a real street.

The simulator also includes playback so drivers can learn from their mistakes. And eventually it could be adapted to people with disabilities and as a rehabilitation training tool for people who have been injured.

Cox has been using simulators for more than 15 years to test the effects on driving performance of medications and diseases such as hypertension and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

“People with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder have an increased risk of driving mishaps,” Cox said. “We’re looking for ways to bring the high risk down to normal.”

Until he got the new simulator Cox was using a customized Atari arcade driving game.

“We realized long ago that such a machine was useful for something other than collecting quarters,” he said.


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