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Ford's video game-like VIRTTEX studies how drivers react in worst-case scenarios

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DEARBORN, Mich. - Most car-themed video games challenge players to race as fast as they possibly can, and push dangerous driving to the limit without crashing.

So test subjects who step inside Ford's high-tech VIRTTEX research facility can be forgiven for wanting to stomp the gas pedal in the video game-like driving simulator.

But most don't and try their best to stay alive.

In an effort to prevent car crashes in the real world, Ford has designed an incredibly lifelike way to test drivers' skills and simulate dangerous situations that could end in death on the roads.

Within a research and development building in Dearborn, Mich., the former hometown of Henry Ford and where the automaker is headquartered, lies the VIRTTEX — short for Virtual Test Track Experiment.

Inside a seven-metre-diameter domed laboratory is what appears to be a standard Ford vehicle. But a close inspection would reveal its engine and transmission have been removed and it has been equipped to tie into an elaborate virtual reality simulator.

Video screens envelope the inside of the domed structure, giving test subjects a simulated 360-degree view of a driving environment. Peeking at all the mirrors reveal accurate views of what you'd expect to see while driving.

Once the simulation has begun, the VIRTTEX structure can move up to three metres side to side or front to back, and two metres vertically, to simulate the motion and feel of actually driving. The steering wheel realistically rumbles just right and sound is pumped into the vehicle to replicate engine and road noise. The wheel and pedals are just as responsive as in any car.

"Everything is mathematically simulated based off what the driver is providing as an input, so if they're turning the steering wheel, pushing on the accelerator pedal, pushing on the brake pedal, shifting into drive, whatever, that all goes into a main simulation computer," explains Ford's Mike Blommer.

For the first few seconds, drivers may feel like they're just playing a video game. But before long, they get lost in the virtual world and feel like they're really driving down a long, open road. And then researchers can start observing all their bad habits. The speeders get identified pretty quickly.

The other cars on the road "are programmed to go five to 10 miles per hour faster than you, so we quickly find out what kind of driver people are," Blommer says.

"If they want to keep up with traffic ... those drivers keep speeding up and the next thing you know you're going 80 to 85 miles per hour (almost 140 km/h)."

VIRTTEX staff will sometimes ask drivers to glance down at a screen near the stick shift and read out a series of six numbers that are displayed every half second.

"When we bring young inexperienced drivers in here most bury their head down and read all six numbers because ... they haven't had that close call," he says.

"It seems like a short amount of time but the reason why this is three seconds is it's based on naturalistic driving analysis. That's the dangerous time that things can suddenly change in front of you."

Similar tests have assessed how changing the radio's settings, inserting a CD, making a phone call or checking voicemail affected driver attention and performance.

"We get some really realistic reactions out of people," Blommer says. "For example, with a forward collision, you get people really pushing — slamming — on the brakes, pushing back on the steering wheel, really trying to do everything they can to avoid colliding with the vehicle in front of them."

VIRTTEX is also used to test how drivers perform when drowsy. A study with Volvo tasked dozens of test drivers with going a night without sleep and then sitting in the VIRTTEX for an hours-long drive on a simulated dark road.

Researchers were able to watch their behaviour as many struggled to stay awake — some sang along with the radio, drank water, or slapped themselves in the face in an effort to focus — and inevitably fell asleep while driving.

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