Come spring, the auto industry's capacity to research the effects of driver behavior will expand dramatically when two high-tech driving simulators are scheduled to open.
One of those devices, the $56 million National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, is backed largely by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It will be available to automakers and other commercial clients.
The other is a $10 million simulator operated by Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., largely for its own study of issues related to driver distraction.
Both simulators have a moving base that will tilt and spin a test vehicle inside a dome to replicate the motions of real-world driving.
They join at least one other working simulator dedicated to the automotive industry, operated by DaimlerChrysler in Berlin.
Another simulator, the Iowa Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, has closed to prepare for the opening of the larger, more sophisticated NHTSA simulator there.
The hefty investment in these research tools comes as debate about the rapid influx of in-vehicle electronics heats up. With navigation tools, Internet access and telephones proliferating in vehicles, automakers, suppliers and safety advocates are debating the impact of the gadgets on drivers and on vehicle safety.
`The time is right'
'The time is right,' said L.D. Chen, director of the simulator at the University of Iowa. 'The demand for research is going up. For a lot of the studies, you have to use the simulators to do it safely.'
Driver distraction is the focus of one of three studies NHTSA will conduct when the Iowa City simulator opens. The multiyear project will evaluate how users interact with mobile telephones, including voice command, said Keith Brewer, director of NHTSA's office of human-centered research.
'We'll probably extend that program later on to look at more complex telematics,' Brewer said.
NHTSA's other two simulator studies will examine the effects of alcohol and sudden tire failure on driver reaction.
During its first year of operation, NHTSA is budgeting $3.5 million on simulator research.
Construction of the facility began in 1997, and its launch likely will come this spring.
Ford will use its simulator to research driver distraction, as well as vehicle dynamics and noise, vibration and harshness. One of the company's first studies will evaluate driver performance when using display screens vs. hands-free voice technology. Ford will use resulting data to develop less-distracting in-vehicle equipment.
Driver inattention was a factor in 10.3 percent of fatal crashes that occurred in 1999, according to NHTSA. That year, there were 41,611 U.S. road deaths and 3.24 million injuries.
Helping drivers manage all the information coming at them could improve that record, saving lives and money, industry researchers say.
The economic impact of traffic accidents in the United States was $150.5 billion in 1994 alone, the last year NHTSA tallied the data.
The simulators look like space-age mechanical spiders - albeit short two legs. A large capsule holding the vehicle rests on six hydraulic devices that expand, contract and pivot, enabling the test driver inside to experience the lurches and twists of traveling down virtual roads.
The NHTSA simulator has a 24-foot dome mounted on six legs. The part with legs, called the hexapod, sits on a large motion base that can move the dome 62 feet laterally or longitudinally. The dome sits on a large turntable that spins 330 degrees in either direction.
Inside the dome, four high-frequency actuators simulate road vibrations. A 360-degree view of the simulated driving course is projected onto the dome's interior walls. Specially modified versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Freightliner Class 8 truck cab will be used as test vehicles.
'It's a big simulator of the same level of complexity and fidelity as the best flight and space simulators,' Brewer said. 'This is totally state of the art.'
It surpasses the Daimler-Chrysler simulator in sophistication, though that facility remains on the leading edge, industry sources say. That simulator helped Mercedes engineers determine the best rear-axle design for the A class and spearheaded development of power-assisted braking systems, according to company officials.
The simulator opened in 1984 and was upgraded in 1995, costing the German automaker almost $19 million. Its dome rotates up to 30 degrees, and its motion base travels almost 10 feet in one direction and 23 feet in another. The projection system gives a 180-degree view to the driver inside the dome. It employs a Mercedes car, truck and bus as test vehicles.
The Ford simulator, dubbed Virttex, provides a 300-degree view of the road inside the dome. A hydraulic hexapod holds its 24-foot dome more than 11 feet off the floor and can move the simulator 10 feet laterally and longitudinally. The actuators also can rotate the dome 90 degrees and pitch it by more than 20 degrees.
The simulator will use a Ford Taurus, loaded with onboard electronics, as a test vehicle.
Sharing the wealth
Others in the industry will benefit from the new investments. Ford will share with other automakers data about driver reactions, though it won't sell time in its simulator, a spokeswoman said. DaimlerChrysler has leased its simulator to outside clients such as NHTSA and European regulatory agencies.
But perhaps the biggest opportunity for wide industry research comes with the opening of the new simulator at the University of Iowa. NHTSA has reserved two-thirds of available time, leaving the remainder to commercial customers. Users pay $1,000 per hour for the privilege, and the university will manage and maintain the simulator.
Commercial clients could include automakers, Tier 1 suppliers or even pharmaceutical companies researching the effects of drugs on driving performance, said Chen. His department already is working with several automakers and suppliers about leasing time.
Initially, the Iowa City simulator will run a one-shift operation on a $1.7 million annual budget covered by user fees. Within three to five years, the facility is designed to move into a two-shift operation offering 3,500 available hours and bringing in $3.5 million, Chen said.
As the capacity for simulation grows, the resulting data will lead to vehicle design changes and possibly improved traffic safety, researchers say. But simulators can't offer a perfect replication of real-world driving environments, they acknowledge.
'I'm not going to claim we can do a perfect job here,' NHTSA's Brewer said. 'If you're trying to simulate fear and adrenaline with a young mother driving late at night in the rain with a sick child in the back seat crying, you're never going to be able to do that.
'On the other hand, we notice that when drivers get in the simulator, and they get loaded up with various driving tasks, and they're in a high-fidelity environment with the visuals and the sounds and the motion cueing, after a while they get immersed in this environment. ... Many times, drivers become very emotionally distressed.'
And such experiences in the virtual world, he said, should lead to valuable driver performance data for the real world.
Amy Wilson is a staff reporter at Automotive News