Virtual Test Track Lets Ford Study Driver Experience

The large, white dome set atop an array of hydraulic pistons looks like a flight simulator, but the US$10 million facility is actually Ford Motor Company's Virtual Test Track Experiment, or VIRTTEX Lab.

For a video report, click here.

Ford uses it to study the interaction between a car and its driver. The company claims it's the only one of its kind in the U.S. and it sees a big benefit in simulating real world driving forces.

"If you just have that visual sensation and you start steering, at a minimum you'll feel like you're on ice," said Ford's Mike Bloomer from inside the VIRTTEX control room. "As you add more and more motion...people's lane-changing and lane-keeping performance actually matches on-road performance quite well."

The dome is 24 feet in diameter and made of carbon fiber. It's supported by several hydraulic pistons that are able to create vibrations at 13 Hertz to simulate bumps on a road. The simulator can also mimic more dramatic motions like swerving and hard braking. Bloomer said that the simulator cannot recreate actual real world driving forces, since a much larger area would be needed, but that the VIRTTEX lab can recreate them to about 50 to 70 percent.

Inside the dome is a full sized car that is outfitted with sensors, speakers and displays. There are five CRT projectors that show video of the road in both the front and back of the car. From the driver's seat, a glance at the rear-view mirror would reveal an LCD display mounted in the back seat.

During the demonstrations, Ford also pumped in real world audio.

"We're using gaming industry technology to replicate the 3D sound," Bloomer said speaking over the whirring hum of cooling fans from inside the brain center of the VIRTTEX lab. A small, closet-like room closed off from the lab's control room houses the simulator's processors.

Pointing to what looked like a mannequin from the shoulders up, Bloomer said, "This is a binaural head. We can put that in a vehicle and make actual vehicle recordings."

The head can record road noise from inside an actual car. Ford processes the audio and uses it in the simulator.

Also in the room was a dual quad-core computer that runs all of the real time vehicle models or the "ballet of vehicles" as Bloomer called them. He said each of the eight cores runs at around 2.3 Ghz. Stored in a rack server next to the PC was Ford's image generator from Quantum3D.

In the VIRTTEX control room a trained operator sat in front of a window looking out onto the simulator. Positioned in front of a number of displays, the operator was able to monitor the simulator, choose the simulation, and see and communicate with the participate to make sure nothing went wrong.

Ford has used the simulator to test distracted and drowsy drivers. During a distracted driver test, Ford had a driver read a set of numbers that appeared on the center console while the vehicle was in motion. The driver needed to take his eyes off the road for a few seconds to read the numbers. While the numbers flashed, Ford would stop a virtual car in the roadway. Bloomer said that most people would rear-end the car, but in the three tests IDG News Service observed at the lab, all of the drivers were able to avoid a collision.

Nick Barber can be reached at nick_barber@idg.com or on Twitter @nickjb.

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