July 13, 2011

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, more than 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes each year in the United States. In 2005, this resulted in a cost of $41 billion to the country, and $969 million to Louisiana alone, in addition to the psychological impact on the passengers, friends and families of victims (http://www.cdc.gov/Motorvehiclesafety/statecosts/la.html). Highway safety statistics such as these draw attention to the dire need for research in this increasingly important field, and LSU is aimed at being a key player in the fight to make the nation’s roadways a safer place to drive.

LSU’s College of Engineering has a new and exciting acquisition that will spur cross-campus research and could potentially draw in big dollar federal grants – a virtual driving simulator developed by Realtime Technologies Inc. The simulator will provide undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines the opportunity participate in studies that could impact driving safety.

The simulator features a full-body Ford Focus (minus the wheels) and technologically-advanced computer programming that provides a realistic virtual environment by combining a series of cameras, projectors and screens, bringing the total driving experience indoors.

Associate Professors of Civil & Environmental Engineering Sherif Ishak and Brian Wolshon, together with Associate Director of Research for LSU’s Gulf Coast Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency Vinayak Dixit, worked to bring this innovative equipment to campus. The software behind the simulator is quite complex and will take some time and significant programming before it is fully operational, but that presents the opportunity to involve graduate students or faculty from computer science and similar programs.

“Once the installation is complete, we will be able to test for many things,” said Ishak. “Texting, road conditions, the impact of medication on driver awareness – the possibilities are endless.”

The program works by allowing humans to interact with the simulator, providing a complete and realistic simulation framework. This provides researchers the ability to piece together a simulated driving environment tailored to the research being conducted. Once the simulated environment is in place, the researchers will then be able to employ a human subject to carry out the established task(s) and to analyze the results.

“Four digital cameras that feed into the SimObserver software have recently been installed, allowing us to capture video from four different angles inside the vehicle and observe the driver’s behavior more accurately,” said Ishak. “Additional data can also be captured for every single frame on top of the video stream such as the vehicle coordinates, speed, acceleration, etc.”

Already, researchers can select from a variety of weather conditions, road surfaces, driving environments and other options. From then on, the driver is immersed in a world of the researcher’s choosing – anything from a rainy, busy interstate to a sunny day in the big city.

Everything about the process is like driving a real car – participants have to put the car in gear, use their mirrors and react to the flow of traffic. Step on the gas, and the driver sinks into the seat; step on the brakes, and the driver rolls forward. It’s quite realistic – so much so, in fact, that participants react almost the same way as they would when driving their own vehicles, carefully using their mirrors and checking both ways before merging into traffic. One side effect of this virtual reality program, though, is motion sickness – which is reported to be sometimes quite intense.

“It definitely takes some getting used to,” said Ishak. “Because of the different levels of visual stimulation and simulated movement, vertigo and nausea are commonplace after the first ‘drive,’ which is why participants in future studies will have to operate the equipment multiple times before we can register their results.”           

Some potential areas of research include:

  • Study of human factors in driving tasks;
  • Study of driving performance for different groups and under different environmental conditions;
  • Design or assessment of new in-vehicle gadgets, including text messaging equipment;
  • Training of drivers;
  • Improvement of highway design standards;
  • Impact of prescription drugs on driver safety;
  • And much more.

While new, the college’s simulator brings LSU into the quickly developing world of simulation research. Supported by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and the Louisiana Board of Regents, it promises to be a great addition to LSU’s arsenal of research applications.

“This is a very interesting research area that we haven’t had the chance to work with before,” said Ishak. “We are focused mostly on safety and the human behavior that impacts safety in driving. Simulators are a field of increasing research, and LSU is ready to enter into this new, interdisciplinary technology.”


Article by Ashley Berthelot, LSU Media Relations, aberth4@lsu.edu, 225-578-3870

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