Simulated Driver’s Ed. Takes Virtual Twists and Turns

By Andrew Trotter — January 22, 2003 6 min read
Technology Page

Lauren Harden, 16, grips the steering wheel as she navigates a twisting highway through a landscape of wooded hills and mountains. Her car crawls at 35 mph, past signs posting a speed limit of 50. Traffic piles up behind her— including, ominously, a motorcycle skittering from one lane to the other.

It’s a pressure situation for a driving newbie.

Never mind that the 10th grader has her eyes riveted on a computer screen, while steering from a platform outfitted to resemble a car, in the driver’s education classroom at Deep Run High School here.

The motorcycle suddenly races around Ms. Harden’s car in the face of oncoming traffic. Braking slightly, she glances in her rear- view mirror at a yellow compact car that has moved up to her rear bumper. Showing her composure, she drives steadily until the car passes her and both vehicles are at a safe distance.

Ms. Harden pulls to the shoulder as the class bell rings, a few miles closer to earning her driver’s license, for which she became eligible this month.

Her teacher, Kieley Thomas, says Ms. Harden may have gained something else: An image in her memory that might help her recognize a hazard and avoid an accident if she encounters it on a real highway.

“Driving is all experience,” Ms. Thomas says, nodding toward the six simulators at the far end of her capacious classroom. “This is the most realistic way to offer them some, without them hurting themselves.”

Video Generation

The simulators, made by Simulator Systems Internation Inc., are part of a new generation of machines that feature the three-dimensional graphics and responsiveness found in the best new video games.

The 42,000-student Henrico County district in suburban Richmond is one of the first school systems in the nation to use the driving simulators, which just went on the market last spring, according to Todd Roberts, a spokesman for the Tulsa, Okla., company.

It’s not surprising to find Henrico County using the machines, considering its much-publicized program to purchase Apple iBooks—to date, 24,000 of them—for all of its secondary students. Students use their iBooks to play an instructional CD-ROM by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and to look up the state driver’s education curriculum on a district Web site.

And the district has its eye on an even higher-end, three-screen simulator made by General Electric that is used for training by police and fire departments. But the $120,000 mobile unit will remain a dream, school officials say, unless a sharing arrangement with local emergency services gets past the discussion stage.

For now, Deep Run High’s snazzy new simulators are innovation enough—and putting more reality into simulation, teachers say.

“The [on-screen] cars react just like real cars,” said Garland “Beau” Ellet, who teaches driver’s education at Henrico High School. He was on the district committee that selected the simulators for Deep Run High, the district’s newest school.

Mr. Ellet’s own classes use older simulators based on 30-year-old technology, in which all drivers watch the same video of the highway, projected on a large screen. When a truck pulls into the intersection, everybody brakes. Those are useful exercises, he said, but the new simulators are better.

The new ones let each user travel his or her own road, as viewed on a monitor perched where the windshield would be on a real car. The experience is dynamic: Turn left or right, and the scene changes accordingly. Speed up, and you gain on a vehicle you are following—or rear-end it, if you’re not careful.

The computer-drawn settings stand up to any video game—not as picture-perfect as film, but convincingly 3-D, with changes of perspective as the user drives along. Fog, rain, and snow affect both visibility and handling. Eighteen-wheelers honk as they zoom past.

In other ways, the old and new simulators have a lot in common. After all, both are designed to resemble and operate like a car. In both, the user sits in a bucket seat mounted on a small platform, facing a dashboard with steering wheel, dials, buttons, and levers, with pedals below and an emergency brake to the side. The simulator transmits information about the user’s performance— such as braking times, turn signals, steering decisions—to a central computer system for scoring.

Investing in Safety

The new machines don’t come cheap. The six simulators at Deep Run cost a total of $64,000, according to Bonnie Conner-Gray, the district’s education specialist for driver’s education. In fact, the Henrico County schools adopted a $50 fee for the road phase of instruction to raise money to replace older simulators, eventually, at all schools.

It’s an investment in safety, administrators here say, because teenage drivers nationally are twice as likely to be in an accident as older people, a risk that rises to five times as likely when the teenager has a passenger, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ms. Conner-Gray says youths in Henrico County have the same accident rate as the national average: About one in four teenagers crashes in the first year of driving.

The high cost of the simulators leads to a caution from Vanessa C. Wigand, the supervisor of driver’s education for the Virginia Department of Education. She worries that districts may cut back on practice-range and road requirements to be able to afford the new classroom equipment.

She’s also concerned with the fact that seasoned drivers, at first, perform worse on the simulators than in real driving. That raises questions about how well the sophisticated machines prepare teenagers for the road.

But administrators at Deep Run High, which opened this past September and enrolls 680 students in grades 9 and 10, said their 10th graders use the simulators as part of a blend of classroom instruction, driving on the school’s practice range, and on-road experience in a semester-long course.

At the advanced level of the software, for example, students drive their simulators through “risky situations,” nine scenarios that include fog, rain, and nighttime driving, factors that affect both visibility and handling of a vehicle. That level also features coming upon a bus stopped in the middle of the road.

Lauren Harden, the careful sophomore, says the simulator seems a lot like real driving, except for the rear-view mirrors. Because the district bought the single-monitor version of the simulators, students must press a button on the dashboard, which momentarily takes away the front view, to check their blind spots. A three- monitor version provides side views at a glance, though at a substantially higher price.

But Ms. Harden says the simulator has helped her with the driving situations she finds most difficult: accelerating onto a busy expressway and, of course, dealing with unpredictable motorcyclists.

Crazy Drivers

“They have these crazy drivers, so you’re ready in real life,” she said.

Yet some students might not be ready, as a young woman at the next simulator seems to demonstrate. She has overtaken and nearly rammed a car before flying off the road, with the sound of grass whipping under the chassis, before she lurches back onto the pavement.

And then there’s Lauren Clementi, 16, who wears colored rubber bands on her wrist and is cruising at a simulated 80 mph before accelerating to 100 on a beachfront straightaway. “It doesn’t feel like you’re going that fast,” she said blithely, adding that she has driven 70 mph “in real life,” an admission that raises Ms. Conner-Gray’s eyebrows.

The driver’s education official noted, however, that by observing students on the machines, teachers may become aware if a student has a penchant for speed before he or she hits the road. “It’s also good to see the personalities of your kids,” she said, adding that teachers may also spot students’ eye disorders.

Although the new generation of driving simulators is a step up from those of the past, they won’t make a difference by themselves, experts stress.

“I think it’s an excellent tool for understanding decisionmaking,” said Ms. Wigand of the state education department. “It raises risk awareness.”

But, she added, “I do not think it should substitute for actual driving experience.”

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