Iowa City Press-Citizen: Who Has 'World's Most Advanced' Driving Simulator? UI or Lexus

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

By B. A. Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Car Maker Studied UI's Version Before Building Its Own

Can there be two "most advanced" driving simulators in the world?

Thousands of miles apart sit two similar large orbs in unassuming warehouse-like facilities. The orbs rest on high-tech mounts that offer a full range of motion and provide researchers a laboratory to study car and driver safety.

The University of Iowa has been home to the National Advanced Driving Simulator, an $81 million project, in Coralville since 2001. Meanwhile, in October, Lexus unveiled its "next big thing" located on the company's research campus in Higashifuji, Japan, which has been the focus of new TV commercials.

They share the same billing as the "most advanced" in the world.

"That would depend on what you were measuring," said Brooke Badger, a Lexus spokeswoman, about whether Iowa's or Lexus' simulator is "most advanced." But, she added, that it is her understanding Lexus' version has the rightful claim.

Tim Brown, a UI researcher and driver impairment program manager who has worked with the simulator since the project began, said officials from Lexus came to Coralville to gather information to refine their own simulator.

A Lexus commercial offers some kudos saying, "We started by studying all of the best driving simulators available throughout the world, many of them are at universities and other research centers."

Which is the most high tech is hard to say because Lexus' version is a private simulator used for internal purposes, Brown said. UI's simulator is a public resource used by collaborators throughout the country, Brown said.

The key difference is that UI's model is used for research that is shared in peer-reviewed journals while Lexus' is private property for a for-profit business, Brown said.

"Our goal is to improve driving safety and decrease fatalities on the roadways," Brown said.

The National Advanced Driving Simulator was the invention of Ed Haug, a UI engineering professor and the project's director. It was shepherded into existence through much of the 1990s and through three UI presidents including Mary Sue Coleman, Hunter Rawlings and Richard Remington (interim), and received support from federal and state leaders. Its price escalated from an early price tag of $36.5 million to $81 million before it opened.

The three-ton orb is large enough to fit interchangeable full-sized retired automobiles. Eight projectors bring to life 360 degrees of wraparound visuals. The controls in the automobile make the orb move in virtually every direction, spin, tilt and accelerate. Meanwhile, cameras and sensors throughout the simulator capture the subject's responses.

Brown, who has worked with the simulator since 2000 has five or six active projects at any given time, he said. He recently revealed results of a study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found sensors could be used to detect drunken driving with 73 percent to 86 percent accuracy, which is comparable with field sobriety tests.

The study will be followed up with research about whether a similar system can be used to detect drowsiness. It is not clear how the results could be used in a real-life setting, but some possibilities include a signal to warn the driver to pull over or transmitting a warning to other vehicles on the roadway, Brown said.

"There's a lot of potential with what you could do with this," Brown said.