New simulator puts UW-Madison on the map for driving research

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Research, Spring: Magazine

There’s only one place in Wisconsin where a driver can send text messages, speed or engage in other risky behaviors with no risk of an accident: the new UW-Madison Driving Simulation Laboratory.

Drivers not only are certain to survive the experience, but the consequences of their actions could be safer vehicles and roads around the country and even around the world.

The driving simulator, located in the Mechanical Engineering Building, addresses a substantial need to test new vehicle technologies and road infrastructure quickly, say its founders, Emerson Electric Quality and Productivity Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering John Lee and Civil & Environmental Engineering Associate Professor David Noyce, who also directs the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory

The driving simulator

Industrial and systems engineering postdoc Bobbie Seppelt in the driving simulator. Photo: David Nevala.

. “Vehicles are getting smarter, and we need to get ahead of that rapid change to understand how drivers respond to the
technology,” says Lee, an expert in driver distraction. “The fundamental reason for the simulator is to understand how people respond to technology so we can design it better and save lives. The car is designed from the ground up to be the car of the future and something we can use to develop and test next-generation vehicle technology and road infrastructure.”

Funded by UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the simulator includes a Ford Fusion with a 24-foot screen wrapped around in front and an additional screen behind the car. Six projectors cast a virtual driving environment on the screens, immersing a driver in as much as 270 degrees of simulation. The projectors render images at the same resolution the human eye does. This allows researchers to, for example, project signage exactly as it would appear on a physical road. The simulator is motion-based and capable of one degree of movement in any direction.

Flexible software from Realtime Technologies Inc. combined with the high-end hardware will allow researchers to test a wide variety of driver behaviors and responses, many of which aren’t economically or ethically possible to test on physical roads. Drivers could be dosed with alcohol or learn to navigate a new intersection design. Additionally, the simulator is likely to directly benefit Wisconsin drivers, as Noyce plans to replicate segments of roads around the state that are known to cause traffic problems and test traffic control solutions for those segments.

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