UMass Amherst Driving Simulation Lab Tracks Drivers Responses, Making Travel Safer

AMHERST, Mass. - A state-of-the-art driving simulation lab at the University of Massachusetts is aimed at making automobile travel safer and more efficient by tracking drivers’ responses to hazards, ranging from poor weather conditions to threatened collisions. Take this scenario:

You’re driving through a pleasant suburban neighborhood when you stop at an intersection to make a left-hand turn. A car pulling up on the right catches your eye. Suddenly, as you begin to turn, a pedestrian appears in the crosswalk. Can you stop in time?

Donald Fisher, a mechanical engineering professor at the University, says that it’s safer and better to test the situation in a computer-created simulation - "virtual reality" - than in real life.

Dubbed MIDAS (Massachusetts Interactive Driving & Acoustic Simulator), the $1 million lab opened last autumn with funding from the National Science Foundation and industry sources. Using an actual car with computer circuitry in place of its engine, Fisher and a team of 15 graduate students run a wide range of experiments on virtual roadways. Their tests measure everything from drivers’ abilities to avoid collisions, to the usefulness of three-dimensional road signs.

The car sits facing a projection screen, its front tires blocked. A "driver" maneuvers through virtual cityscapes, fogged-in highways, and crowded parking lots. A motorcycle zooms by; dogs bark; the sport-utility vehicle just ahead suddenly slows, its brake lights glowing. All the while, sophisticated technology tracks the driver’s eye movements and driving responses. The computer graphics are so realistic that the driver "feels" a sense of motion - particularly startling in the worst-case scenarios: a collision or rollover.

"We build these worlds from the bottom up," says Fisher. He and his students use powerful graphics programs to construct the virtual journeys. The team can re-create any location: for example, a project for MassPort puts human subjects in the driver’s seat at Boston’s Logan Airport, studying the best placement of traffic signs for both safety and efficiency.

"Do people have enough time to identify the signs if there’s another vehicle in front of them, like a big truck or van?" asks Fisher. "It’s a real issue." In another MassPort project, scientists are helping to determine the best possible signage for tunnels and highways resulting from the "Big Dig" project. Other projects include research on:

* Collision avoidance using millimeter waves, a technology used in the aerospace industry. Millimeter waves penetrate fog, smoke, and darkness, detecting oncoming objects before they are visible. Researchers are working toward translating that information into a warning signal for the driver, perhaps making the difference between a collision or a close call.

* Whether 3D road signs are more visible than traditional two-dimensional signs; useful, say, in preventing drivers from turning down one-way streets in the wrong direction in conditions of poor visibility or even fatigue.

* Why older drivers are involved in motor vehicle accidents involving left-hand turns more frequently than statistics predict.

* Whether voice-activated car phones would be easier and safer to use than traditional car phones, which require dialing and may distract the driver.

* Whether hand-held stereo controls can be as easily used by older adults as by younger ones.

* "Intelligent" transportation systems, which could inform drivers of filled parking lots and traffic jams, giving them the option of selecting alternate lots or routes. The project includes determining how many drivers will take the alternate route, so that smaller highways won’t be overburdened with a huge influx of traffic.

Industry participants at the lab include Millitech Corp. of South Deerfield; MassPort; the Mass. Highway Department; Bose Corp. of Framingham; the Link Foundation (Orlando, FL); the National Institute of Aging (Bethesda, MD); and Motorola Corp. (Schaumburg, IL).

"What we want to do is make driving safer," says Fisher. "One of the tragic things is, traffic accidents not infrequently lead to death or terrible injury. I think this lab is going to help change that."