August 1, 2012
Bill Howard

Inside Virttex, Ford’s amazing driver distraction simulator

Cruising the interstate, I glance down to read a text on a mobile phone resting on the console. Hmm, it’s nothing important. I chat with my passenger. Another text flashes, I glance down to read part of it, glance up at the road, glance down again and – OMG! – I’m bearing down on a huge bus, barely moving, just a few car lengths in front of me. I slam on the brakes, as hard and fast as possible, pushing the brake pedal through the firewall… and the last thing I remember is the windshield going blank.

Houston, we have a problem.

The world went blank but I didn’t see angels and harps because the highway and the crash situation were imaginary, created inside Ford’s Virttex (virtual text track experiment cockpit simulator). Functioning much like a simulator for pilots, this domed virtual world on pitching and sliding stilts has been used to test car cockpits and instruments since 2001. It played a role in the development of recent center stacks such as MyFord Touch. In recent years, Ford used Virttex driver distraction research to learn more about what causes driver inattention and what countermeasures Ford can embed into cars to keep people like me from becoming another Darwinian statistic. It also gives Ford a leg up on the competition — Ford says it’s the only automaker in the U.S. with a virtual reality simulator of this magnitude.

In my case, the imaginary crash didn’t ever happen, not even virtually. I was one of the minority of Virttex drivers with enough luck or skill or look-down-look-up timing to see the bus soon enough. I also had the benefit of Ford’s collision warning, a row of a dozen impossible-to-miss red LEDs at the base of the windshield (photo right) that flash when you close the gap too quickly on the vehicle in front. The system, called collision warning with brake support, was fine-tuned in the Virttex simulator. So was Ford’s lane departure warning system, BLIS (blind spot information system).

A 24-foot dome with 45-megapixel, 360-degree projected image

The recently upgraded Virttex dome sits inside a multi-story chamber hollowed out of a Ford R&D building in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s 24 feet in diameter, sitting on hydraulic arms. On the floor inside the dome is a Ford Edge crossover done in matte black paint to reduce reflections. The inside of the dome is painted white and serves as the projection surface for seven new Barco projectors, each providing 2048 pixels of horizontal resolution. A camera in the car captures the driver’s face and reactions. Logitech THX speakers at the corners of the dash pipe in road noise. In the cargo area of the Edge is a flat panel LCD screen representing the view out the back window.

According to Mike Blommer, the Virttex technical lead for Ford, the projectors and LCD provide a 45-megapixel, 360-degree image. In comparison, a single 1080p display (a modern TV) shows a 2-megapixel image. The Edge doesn’t have a working engine but it does have plenty of power: it’s connected to 14 PCs and uses a quarter-mile of fiber optic cable to link the car, the simulator, and the control room. If you turn the steering wheel, the seven projectors recalibrate what they’re showing, and the simulator dome rolls slightly to simulate the car leaning on the suspension. Turn harder, the view changes more and tilts to simulate suspension lean.

Virttex’s six degrees of freedom

Ford technical spokesman Alan Hall describes Virttex as being like an airplane simulator, though with some differences. Both have six degrees of freedom: yaw, pitch and roll plus x-, y- and z-axis motion. Airline simulators move at 0-5 Hz, which is good for the floating sensation most planes have. Virttex operates at 0-20 Hz to emulate smooth and bumpy roads as well as powertrain dynamics (vibration). Plane simulators train pilots while Hall says Virttex is “used for human performance metrics and systems development purposes.” In other words, the air simulator teaches skilled pilots to be better pilots with planes currently developed and flying. Virttex tracks how average drivers respond to traffic situations and how much they’re helped by various driver assist devices in development such as lane departure warning and blind spot detection.

The dome sits one story off the ground, accessed by a jetway bridge. There’s one other airplane similarity: an emergency exit on the driver’s side at the base of the dome, with an inflatable slide. Participants enter the test area so they don’t see the moon lander-looking contraption; as far as they know, they’re in a big igloo shaped room, solidly attached to the ground, with a car in it.

Next page: What’s it like to drive in Verttex?

What’s it like to drive Verttex?

Before driving the simulator, Blommer and his colleagues briefed me on how Virttex works, and I saw the dome perched on its skinny hydraulic legs. Knowing what lay behind the magic curtain, I thought the experience might be underwhelming, like a single-ticket ride at the amusement park, more Moving Teacups than Space Mountain. Not at all. The steering wheel and pedals feel the same as in a moving car. You feel occasional dips in the road and the view is truly 360 degrees. After about a minute of acclimation (during which some drivers feel mild unease not unlike incipient nausea), you really do feel like you’re in traffic, at speed, and you sense the same motions as in a real car when you accelerate, corner, or brake. Everything you’ve heard about airline pilots walking out of a simulator in a cold sweat because the situation seemed so real, it’s even easier to believe.

In a moving car that’s braking, the forces of deceleration push you forward against your seat belt; here, Virttex can provide deceleration feel by moving the dome backwards (negative acceleration) and also by tipping the dome slightly forward. Virttex can move up to feet sideways or front-back (from center, 10 feet total), up to 3 feet up and down. It can pitch or roll 20 degrees in either direction (total 40 degrees) and yaw 40 degrees (total 80 degrees). A Ford researcher always rides along on the tests. For the rare test subject who can’t synchronize the full circle of video and the car’s motions, there’s a panic button by the sunroof controls that brings the ride to an immediate halt.

To show how the six degrees of movement, plus the seven projectors and speakers, combine to emulate a moving car in a way that doesn’t upset your inner ear’s equilibrium, the control room turned off the yaw movement (and warned me to try to maintain control). Yaw is essentially the left-right rotation you’d get if a spindle ran down from the middle of the roof through the floor to the ground. With yaw correction off, it was like trying to drive on ice — the car veered left, then right, then left. The sensations my body felt didn’t match what I saw onscreen. The moment yaw motion returned, all was well. Blommer and his colleagues have written technical treatises on the topic with titles such as Physical Fidelity of Driving Simulators.

Is Verttex truly lifelike? Not entirely. Even with new, high-output projectors, the display seems low on contrast and brightness. (Blommer said the projectors ran at half-brightness to avoid fuzzy images from the 60 Hz output.) So it seems you’re driving always at twilight and nobody has their headlamps on. The seams where video overlaps are initially noticeable. The highways and signs are American, but the cars and buses seem like they’re European. But Ford isn’t claiming to be calculating exact driver-distraction-frequency situations, just how typical drivers respond to traffic situations and the driver aids in the car. And the pit in my stomach when the bus filled the windshield, that was real enough.

Other wisdom gained from Virttex

In addition to helping develop specific products, such as lane departure warning and collision warning, Ford is learning what warnings alert drivers most effectively: visual, audible, or tactile such as vibrating steering wheels or seats. Some of the findings seem obvious in hindsight, for example that audio alerts supplemented by visual alerts, or vice versa, work best. For instance, an audio tone may be effective alerting the driver that he’s drifting across lanes in a simulator, but driving with a family onboard, the family may find the alert so annoying, and the driver may find his family so annoying when they complain, that he turns it off. Ford notes that “drivers prefer subtle warnings such as steering wheel vibrations rather than loud chimes to alert them to a lane departure.” One exception is collision warning, where the consequences of ignoring are so dire, both may be necessary. Most cars with collision warning use both.

Ford and GM both have low-cost collision warning systems. GM places its warning system at the top of the center stack on cars such as the GMC Terrain and couples it with lane departure warning in a single $295 package. Both Ford and GM are effective at warning you of impending collisions. I found Ford’s row of LEDs that bounce off the base of the windshield is even harder to miss.

Battling driver distraction

Ford’s Blommer noted that Virttex gets a lot of use now for studies on distracted driving because of the interest in the topic, although Ford has been running distraction studies since Verttex was completed in 2001. The texting-distraction test, the one that tripped me up, actually uses a small LCD display mounted on the console; rather than getting texts to read, a series of numbers flash and the driver is supposed to see them and read them aloud. I captured and spit back about half the numbers (not unusual, Ford says). Experienced drivers may be more cautious about looking down for too long. Blommer says newer drivers are more likely to type in all 10 digits of a phone number or texting address at once; more experienced drivers mitigate the risk by alternating looking up with typing a couple digits and looking up at the road again.

What else? Ford could measure how well drivers cope with getting texts on the car’s LCD display. Safety absolutists are keen on cellphone abstinence and they say any amount of text-reading and writing is distracting. Safety realists say laws won’t stop people from checking for texts so it may be safer – relatively safer – to have the texts presented in big type on the car’s LCD at the edge of the driver’s vision. Tests like this will keep Verttex busy well into the future.