DEARBORN, MI-Ford recently upgraded its Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) simulator with improved image rendering technologies and capabilities to study driver performance, helping in the development of safety and driver aid technologies.

VIRTTEX has helped in the development of heads-up displays, drowsy driver alerts and lane departure warning technology, soon to be available on the Ford Fusion.

Ford is the only North American automaker with a “high-fidelity”, motion-based simulator featuring a spherical dome on top of a hydraulic system to mimic vehicle movement. The simulator was developed in 2001.

Upgraded image rendering technologies now provide a high-resolution, digitally projected 360-degree horizontal field-of-view to test and measure driver acceleration, braking and steering performance as well as overall driver reactions in varying conditions.

Upgrades to Ford's full-motion virtual test track will help the automaker continue to develop and test active safety and driver aid technologies that warn drivers of imminent collision, drowsiness and other potentially dangerous scenarios behind the wheel.

"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," says Mike Blommer, technical lead for the lab. "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."

The 360-view helps the 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.

Technical advances tested in part in VIRTTEX have included Lane Keeping System and collision warning, which is set to appear in the Ford Fusion available later this year.

Ford used VIRTTEX to examine driver responses and reaction times with advanced early-warning systems such as forward collision warning, a radar-based system designed to help avoid or mitigate the effect of rear-end collisions. The study concluded that certain warning systems may elicit a faster and more appropriate response for distracted drivers.

Ford continues to research numerous types of warnings-including audible, visual and tactile or vibrating warnings-and whether they are most effective alone or in combinations.

This work has already helped determine how soon incident warnings should be used, how intense they need to be, and specific patterns of the warnings in technologies such as the Lane Keeping System. Research to date has shown drivers respond more quickly to certain audible alerts that are more intense, thus more authoritative. Early research also shows some benefit from a combination of warnings-audio alerts backed up by visual warning reinforcement.

VIRTTEX studies are longer-timeframe studies, Blommer noted. The lab focuses on collecting quantitative and objective data, to determine what works best to keep drivers alert and safe behind the wheel. For example, studies show that for similarly performing warnings, drivers prefer subtle warnings such as steering wheel vibrations rather than loud chimes to alert them to a lane departure. The studies focus on how drivers react in certain scenarios and how technologies can help deter potential accidents.

The upgraded projectors are made by Ohio-based Barco and the imagery software is provided by Blue Newt Software of Michigan.

In 2003, Ford conducted one of its first driver distraction studies in VIRTTEX that measured a driver's failure to detect safety-relevant events while doing visual or manual tasks such as retrieving voicemail on a handheld cell phone. The study revealed much higher levels of distraction-glances off the road-among drivers doing such manual and/or visual tasks rather than if they were using some type of hands-free, voice interface.

The VIRTTEX simulator features a spherical dome mounted on a hydraulic system to duplicate vehicle movement. Projectors display a 360-degree horizontal and 45-degree vertical field of vision mounted to the base. The projectors surround the driver to replicate driving scenery, conditions and traffic scenarios synched with the test vehicle's acceleration, braking and steering functions.