updated 07:40 pm EST, Mon January 17, 2011
We go through Ford's Virttex driving dome
A blogger with media credentials for the North American International Auto Show ran his SUV off the road Tuesday, January 11, 2011, in Dearborn, Michigan. There were no injuries, or property damage. The vehicle survived without incident. Immediately following the shunt, the driver had lunch.
And so it goes in Ford's Virttex (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) virtual reality simulator lab at the company's Dearborn Research Center.
Electronista had a chance to experience what Ford designers and engineers use as a tool to develop new technologies including head-up displays, driver drowsiness alerts, lane-departure warnings, texting, and night visibility. Although other simulators are in use in Europe, Ford officials state their example is the only one owned by an automotive manufacturer in North America.
The lab's director, Dr. Mike Blommer, explained how the facility is used to develop safer, green, and feature-rich technologies for future products. Current studies include research in how connectivity through smartphones and other devices impact driver safety. He continued by saying, "you need a great tool, which Virttex is. With it, we can examine the science and psychology of a situation."
Blommer described how Sync and MyFordTouch were both developed in this lab. "All digital companies have some influence over what we do here in the Virttex lab," he said. Recent tests include drowsiness studies, and three-hour nighttime drives that take place after test subjects have had large meals. They generally result in drivers taking what are called micro-sleeps, where they close their eyes for split-second intervals, the results, which sometimes can be deadly.
The simulator is made of a geodesic-style dome and platform, which has a full size car inside as a test bed. It is mounted on hydraulic struts, which can simulate road grades, bumpy roads, banked turns and sudden stops. Loaded with wrap-around video displays, cameras, radio communications to and from the control room, sensors, monitors, and computer racks, it is easily upgradable with newer technologies as they become available. Built at a cost of $7 million, the only other model so equipped is located at the University of Iowa.
"Texting distraction is getting a lot of attention," Blommer said. "Our research has shown that teens, some with as little as a year of driving under their belts, are trusting of the traffic around them. They will look at their phones and dial a complete phone number, while more seasoned operators will dial a couple of digits, look at the road ahead of them, dial a couple more, then look up again, and continue to go back and forth until they dial the complete number."
Technologies such as lane departure warning systems have come from research performed at Virttex. But awareness of social aspects of the technology has also occurred as a result. Virttex engineers have experimented with alerts, which may cause widespread panic in the cabin, in the form of a sound meant to alert the driver that in the process, also alerts the passengers. The other option is haptic response, where the driver receives a pulsing through the steering wheel, letting him know of a lane departure occurring.
Difficulties also occur in other testing. Blommer related how European roads can be modeled in Virttex, but most likely would be driven by drivers experienced on North American roads. "The challenge for us is to accommodate the youngest (16-years old) and oldest drivers, and everyone in between," he said.