The Journey is the Destination

Friday, June 15, 2007

Iowa Engineer magazine, 2007 Number 1

When the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided to develop the world’s most sophisticated vehicle dynamics simulator, it chose the Los Angeles firm TRW, a major player in large aircraft construction, to build the massive,
$48 million machine. When TRW sought a powerhouse engineering team to create the complex software to “drive” the simulator, it chose a team of researchers at CCAD.

When NHTSA decided to locate this national facility, it chose The University of Iowa campus because of the long and successful history in modeling and simulation. The partnership produced the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), an engineering team and facility that provide the world’s highest-fidelity simulation for research into highway safety, motor vehicle systems research, and human driving behavior. Housed in a 40,000-square-foot facility at The University of Iowa’s Oakdale Research Park, the two large simulators and portable mini-sim are supported by a full-time staff of thirty-four—including seven individuals dedicated to maintenance and operations—and eight students.

“The University has a strong tradition of excellence in driving simulation as well as in vehicle dynamics,” Senior Team Leader Omar Ahmad (BA 1993 and MA 1995 in computer science) says. “That expertise has catapulted NADS to a world leadership position.”

Cross-disciplinary research at NADS enhances the safety of American vehicles and highways. Since opening its doors in 2001, the facility has hosted dozens of researchers investigating an array of questions, including the influence of cell phone use on driving behavior, the effect of changing lanes on driving safety, and the impact of advanced automobile technologies on driver control. Recently NHTSA funded a $2 million NADS project to determine the effectiveness of electronic stability control (ESC) systems on automobile safety. The systems, which have been standard on European cars for several years, apply braking action and power to help prevent drivers from losing control of their cars. NADS researchers examined the impact of ECS on the driving behaviors of 500 subjects of various ages. The accident-avoidance systems proved so effective that as of 2010, the federal government will require most new American passenger vehicles to include ECS as standard equipment.

The ECS research was conducted in the NADS-1, a three-ton behemoth that creates synchronized motion, images, and sound to simulate highly realistic driving scenarios. A 24-foot high projection dome can accommodate a full-sized car, several models of which are in the NADS shop. The dome rests on a turntable that rotates 330 degrees and provides 13 degrees of freedom—in other words, virtually any sensation of motion actually experienced while driving a real vehicle. The entire setup is attached to a 64-foot-square motion rail that simulates the sensation of sustained braking and acceleration as well as the motion experienced when driving across three lanes of traffic. And four hydraulic actuators can mimic the texture of almost any road, whether smoothed by new asphalt, glazed with ice, or dotted by potholes.

“This design provides an unprecedented level of fidelity,” Ahmad says. “The typical driving simulator offers six degrees of freedom, but while roll, pitch, and yaw work fine if you’re simulating airplanes, cars are a lot more complicated. The interaction between the vehicle and the road is very complex, but we have the capability to accurately recreate the sensation of movement as it is transferred from the pavement through the vehicle to the driver.”

The facility also has a teaching mission and employs eight students, both graduate and undergraduate. In the engineering version of American Idol, Marshall Potter was “discovered” by CCAD Director Karim Abdel-Malek and Senior Team Leader Jeff Dolan when they heard his team’s senior design presentation about a battery-powered wireless dead-bolt lock that can edit valid users. The two NADS researchers were so impressed by the senior in electrical and computer engineering that they invited him to join the NADS staff.

Potter, who spent last semester as a co-op student at Maytag Corporation, says “For me, working at NADS has been a nice combination of using the tools I’ve learned in school while working somewhere that’s pretty exciting—and unique.”