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You're tooling down the road in your Ford LTD police cruiser and suddenly, from out of nowhere, a van cuts you off in traffic. You're about to switch on the car's siren and flashing lights when a bus in front of you brakes without notice as a bicyclist begins crossing the road just ahead.

Without warning, the sky changes from bright sun to fog, then to night, then snow, then rain. Then one of your tires blows out and you have to pull over.

These are only a few of the roadway scenarios that can be created by the new General Electric Capital I-Sim driving simulator installed this summer in the Department of Psychology at Old Dominion University.

The self-contained unit features three 40-inch television monitors, each driven by a separate computer, that display a fully-interactive, wrap-around view of the road in front of the driver, who sits in a comfortably padded bucket seat. Inset views on each of the screens serve as side- and rearview mirrors and driving controls are straight out of a modern automobile, down to working air conditioning knobs.

With its ability to simulate hundreds of different situations - involving many types of military and civilian vehicles in virtually any combination of weather, light and traffic - the I-Sim is a valuable tool in the psychology department's driving behavior program and could eventually be a regional magnet for driver training because of the machine's flexibility, said Carryl Baldwin, assistant professor of psychology and the manager of Old Dominion's virtual driving lab.

"We're still getting comfortable with it and working out the little bugs," she said.

A GE Web site says the simulator has programs for long-haul freight carriers, emergency vehicle operators, fire departments, motor coach carriers, public transportation and fleet vehicle operators. These programs make safe driving profitable by reducing accidents, improving driver skills, increasing fuel economy, saving costs and saving lives, according to the site.

In addition to the seat and driver's console, the simulator - which carries a price tag of more than $120,000 - is equipped with a Gateway laptop computer and a separate PC to simulate different types of onboard guidance systems - such as Onstar - the topic of a pilot program now underway at the lab.

Test drivers are currently getting two forms of that information - directions, etc. - through verbal and text messages.
"We're looking at the performance and mental workload of those drivers," Baldwin said. "We're measuring their reaction time and their brain activity as an index of their workload in different driving situations. We're asking if there are situations where it would be better to read that message than hear it?"

Baldwin, a second-year faculty member, said text messages might be more distracting to the driver, but are also more permanent, allowing the driver to recheck a previous message when they have time; the auditory messages are less intrusive, but can be difficult to remember.

Vehicles that have integrated systems that lower radio volume when the messages are given are best, she said. Ironically, older drivers who are most able to afford such sophisticated options in their cars are the ones least able to cope with the variety of stimuli presented by the systems and various road situations.
Another pilot program will study auto collision avoidance systems.

"Evidence shows it needs to be auditory," Baldwin said. "You want a system that will alert you to a hazard, but you don't want it to be going off all the time."

Through Baldwin, the university plans to sell time in the simulator to local police agencies and other institutions that need the inexpensive and safe type of driver training provided there. Local military agencies also may be interested for their heavy equipment training needs, Baldwin said.

The simulator has hookups for electroencephalogram sensors, which can detect brain wave patterns in drivers. This information is useful in examining drowsy driving and the spatial skills of taxi drivers, Baldwin said.

Old Dominion's I-Sim also will be getting more powerful. GE offered the current I-Sim unit until they could supply the one the university purchased, one with twice the graphical power of the current unit, she said.

In the future, the simulator also could be used for training airplane pilots, Baldwin said.

This article was posted on: October 25, 2002

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