Driving Simulator Could Help Reveal People's Road Habits

The findings could result in high-tech warning devices in cars; fewer accidents

LOOKS like another case of driver error.

Up ahead Fido is about to dash in front of a car. The driver doesn't see the dog because his attention is wandering, but the car "sees" the dog. Before the driver can say "bad dog," flashing red beams inside the windshield warn him of the danger, and he slows down.

This could be one of the many high-tech warning devices that become standard safety features for either drowsy or alert US drivers in the smarter cars of tomorrow.

If it is, the futuristic $32 million National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) at the University of Iowa will probably get a lot of the credit for lowering the current rate of 71 percent of US accidents caused by driver error, not to mention Fido's gratitude.

"It's kind of remarkable how little we know about the human factor in driving a ground vehicle," said Edward Haug, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa, and leader of the team that will complete NADS by 1996 and make it the most advanced driving simulator in the world. "We know very little what humans do in accident avoidance situations or critical events," he said. "The NADS device will put us in a new league." One of five in the world

Recently selected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to build NADS, the Center for Computer-Aided Design at the university now operates the Iowa Driving Simulator Laboratory (IDS), one of five driving simulation facilities in the world.

The Center has worked with the US Army and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in developing the most advanced dynamics technology in the US which can simulate the exact sight, sound and feel of driving under a variety of conditions.

The value of a simulator is twofold: It is far less expensive to test concepts, devices, and safety systems in high-tech simulation than to build costly models, and drivers are not endangered even though hitting any number of cars, fences, and trees in fog. In addition, a simulator can test different kinds of highways including the new Intelligent Vehicle/Highway System which platoons cars at six-foot intervals traveling at 90 m.p.h. Warning devices in windshields

"We'll do experiments with a cross-section of drivers," said Haug, "and let them get into accidents so we know what the boundaries of safe operation are. For instance, if there are warning devices in the windshield - telling a driver of an on-coming vehicle or that his car is too close to the side of the road - there are questions about how the average driver will respond. Using NADS we'll be able to test various ways drivers will use the information constructively to avoid the accident."

NADS will be built in a 50-foot-high experimental bay using a real car in an enclosed dome, and placed on a platform capable of duplicating the movement of a car on the road. High-resolution graphics displayed on the dome can give the illusion of traveling at night, dusk, in fog or ground haze, and even in smoke conditions. The rearview mirror also simulates traffic behind the car.

Haug, who once "drove" in an advanced simulator used by Daimler-Benz in Germany, said he was driving at 100 m.p.h. when he ran into fog. "I swerved to miss a bus, spun around, and ended up in a field. The reality of it was not lost on me."

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