Trucks at Work

Improving reality via “virtuality”

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.” –Mike Blommer, technical lead for Ford Motor Co.’s Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) simulator

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One of the things I always pay close attention to whilst conducting extended test drives – the most recent with a 2012 Ram Cargo Van – is the “intuitiveness of use” when it comes to vehicle operation: how easy or hard is it to operate the windshield wipers, turn signals, HVAC controls, etc.

That extends to all the “newfangled” stuff they pack in vehicles nowadays as well: touch screen displays that control both “old fashioned” and satellite radio systems, rear-view camera technology, and onboard navigation systems.

Vehicle engineers spend countless hours figuring out how to make all this stuff – complex and simple alike – easy to use, but it’s the HOW of doing it that fascinates me.

Take Ford Motor Co., for example: it uses a full vehicle simulator called the Virtual Test Track Experiment or “VIRTTEX” for short (gesundheit!) to study driver performance as an aide in developing a variety of safety and other technologies.

[Here’s a video overview of the VIRTTEX simulator.]

In Ford’s case, VIRTTEX helped it develop heads-up displays, drowsy driver alerts and lane departure warning technology that it’s going to be incorporated within the automaker’s Fusion sedan later this year.

Developed in 2001 at a cost of about $10 million, Ford recently upgraded VIRTTEX with new “rendering” technologies to provide a higher-resolution, digitally projected 360-degree horizontal field-of-view and 45-degree vertical field of vision to test and measure driver acceleration, braking and steering performance as well as overall driver reactions in varying conditions.

The 360-view – crafted with upgraded projectors made by Ohio-based Barco and imagery software provided by Blue Newt Software of Michigan – helps Ford’s 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, noted Mike Blommer, VIRTTEX’s technical lead.

"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," he explained, pointing out that the simulations help determine how soon incident warnings should be used, how intense they need to be, and how drivers respond to certain types of warnings.

[Simulators are also becoming more popular in the trucking industry as a driver training aid as well.]

Bloomer added that Ford’s initial research, for example, shows increased benefit from a combination of warnings – audio alerts backed up by visual warning reinforcement – and that drivers prefer subtle warnings, such as steering wheel vibrations, rather than loud chimes to alert them to a lane departure.

And that, folks, is one of the ways the virtual world perfects vehicle technology for the real world.

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