On-road driving tests, a rite of passage for high school students, could soon join eight-track tape players and bench seats in automotive obsolescence.
Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine are studying the effectiveness of virtual reality driving tests with a driving simulator at the Department of Motor Vehicles on Pantops, in Albemarle County, Va.
The virtual reality test, said UVa researcher Daniel Cox, is designed to be fairer and more comprehensive than a traditional behind-the-wheel test.
“On-road evaluations are not very reliable,” Cox said. “For example, your driving evaluation in Staunton is very rural, whereas in Richmond and Northern Virginia, it is almost entirely urban, so they are very, very inconsistent.”
The simulator, on the other hand, presents new drivers with different types of terrain and road hazards, and can be made uniform for everyone in the state.
“I think the idea is to increase safety,” said Gabriel Camacho, a research assistant who oversees the simulator on Pantops. “It is standard, and because it is a simulator, it is unbiased, so it is not like it can have a bad day or anything.”
The idea to use simulators as a safer alternative to real-world testing is not new.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies the effects of drugs and alcohol, illness, fatigue and vision loss on driving in a $50 million simulator at the University of Iowa, according to the agency’s website.
The University of Iowa’s machine tilts, rotates and can move forward and backward along a track.
Airlines use similar simulators to test their pilots. The machines are cheaper than training planes, and allow airlines to present pilots with dangerous situations without jeopardizing lives.
The DMV machine projects movement onto a screen in front of the driver, Cox said.
“The whole idea is that this is going to be cost effective,” Cox said. “The cost of installing one of these things is going to be less than the cost of a car, and then you don’t have to do gas, tires, maintenance or insurance.” Cox estimated each simulator would cost less than $25,000 to install and operate.
Camacho and Cox said volunteers have reported dizziness and motion sickness as they get used to images moving toward them without feeling momentum. The DMV has special wrist bands for those who get carsick in the simulator, and the symptoms usually subside after a few minutes, Camacho said.
“The simulator will never entirely replace on-road tests, because just like some people cannot go on a boat because they get sick, or they cannot go to an IMAX movie because they get sick, they cannot use the simulator,” Cox said.
Brandon Turner, a Charlottesville resident waiting to take his driving test, recently tried the simulator before taking his road test.
“I haven’t driven in a while, so I’m getting used to (being in a car) before I go back out on the road, and it is kind of helpful to me,” Turner said. “It’s pretty real.”
Despite being impressed with the simulator’s dynamics, Turner wasn’t sure he would trust drivers who had only tested on a simulator.
“It looks like a video game, so I think people would play it like a video game, so I’m not sure they would take it as seriously,” he said.
For now, drivers can only get their license after an on-road test. Even if the simulators are adopted, Cox said, there would be a choice between testing on a simulator and testing in a car.
At this stage, the machines are gathering data to determine how most drivers respond to traffic, hazards such as potholes, and different road conditions.
Though the simulators save data from different volunteers, it is strictly for research, Cox said. Using the machine has no effect on insurance policies, or a participant’s ability to get or maintain a driver’s license.
Volunteers can set up an appointment to use the simulator, or can volunteer at the DMV.