Ford Upgrades Virtual Reality Simulator to Help Develop Future Safety Technologies, Driver Aids


DEARBORN — Upgrades to Ford's full-motion virtual test track will help the automaker continue to develop and test active safety and driver aid technologies that warn drivers of imminent collision, drowsiness, and other potentially dangerous scenarios behind the wheel.

The Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) simulator, which features a spherical dome on top of a hydraulic system to mimic vehicle movement, now has upgraded image rendering technologies to provide a high-resolution, digitally projected 360-degree horizontal field-of-view to test and measure driver acceleration, braking and steering performance, as well as overall driver reactions in varying conditions.

"VIRTTEX plays an integral role in helping us develop future safety and driver assist technology, making it essential to keep the simulator current with the latest technology," said Mike Blommer, technical lead for the lab. "Coupled with improvements in the resolution and brightness of the projection technologies, as well as improved imagery capabilities, we will be able to boost our capabilities to conduct active safety studies."

The 360-view helps the engineers evaluate driving performance with a complete view of every angle around the driver. Improved imagery creates the most realistic scenarios including other traffic, pedestrians, and landmarks alongside the roadway.

Technical advances tested in part in VIRTTEX have included Lane Keeping System and collision warning, which is set to appear in the all-new Ford Fusion available to customers later this year.

Ford used VIRTTEX to examine driver responses and reaction times with advanced early-warning systems such as forward collision warning, a radar-based system designed to help avoid or mitigate the effect of rear-end collisions. The study concluded that certain warning systems may elicit a faster and more appropriate response for distracted drivers.

Ford continues to research numerous types of warnings – including audible, visual and tactile, or vibrating warnings – and whether they are most effective alone or in combinations.

This work has already helped determine how soon incident warnings should be used, how intense they need to be, and specific patterns of the warnings in technologies such as the Lane Keeping System. Research to date has shown drivers respond more quickly to certain audible alerts that are more intense, thus more authoritative. Early research also shows some benefit from a combination of warnings – audio alerts backed up by visual warning reinforcement.

VIRTTEX studies are longer-timeframe studies, Blommer noted. The lab focuses on collecting quantitative and objective data, to determine what works best to keep drivers alert and safe behind the wheel. For example, studies show that for similarly performing warnings, drivers prefer subtle warnings such as steering wheel vibrations rather than loud chimes to alert them to a lane departure. The studies focus on how drivers react in certain scenarios and how technologies can help deter potential accidents.

The upgraded projectors are made by Ohio-based Barco and the imagery software is provided by Blue Newt Software of Michigan.

In 2003, Ford conducted one of its first driver distraction studies in VIRTTEX that measured a driver's failure to detect safety-relevant events while doing visual or manual tasks such as retrieving voicemail on a handheld cell phone. The study revealed much higher levels of distraction – glances off the road – among drivers doing such manual and/or visual tasks rather than if they were using some type of hands-free, voice interface.

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