UFTI Upgrades Its Full-Car Simulator, Creating Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Driving Research

An interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Florida (UF) has joined forces to enhance one of its driving simulators with up-to-date technology to study the human-vehicle interactions. Such studies aspire to potentially keep people safe, improve their driving performance, quality of life, or help them adapt to new technology, e.g. advanced driver assistance systems such as automatic cruise control or collision avoidance systems,  in a an effective and safe manner.

“We are very excited to have this new technology on campus,” said Lily Elefteriadou, professor and director of the UFTI. “The UFTI led the effort to obtain funding from several colleges and departments across UF. There are more than 20 faculty from various disciplines who are planning to perform research at this facility.”

Funding for the simulator was provided by the UF Office of Research, the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and the Environment, Dr. Elefteriadou, Dr. William Mann, professor and chair of the UF Department of Occupational Therapy and the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Driving simulators are not new to UF. The previous simulator was located in the Smart House at Oak Hammock in Gainesville, Fla., since 2005. Many driving performance studies have been conducted by researchers at UF on this simulator, including evaluations of advanced vehicle technologies, assessments of older drivers, returning combat veterans, and teens with autism spectrum disorder and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Although the original set up and infrastructure comprised of an operator desk, a full car, and three screens, many of its components are new. The new simulator offers more visual display channels, along with higher fidelity graphics resolution, component modeling, and steering feedback. The software also contains an autonomous mode that can be engaged and disengaged during its use. Another enhancement includes spatialized audio that provides a more realistic engine, transmission, wind and tire noises confined to specific locations or objects.

Sandra Winter, a research assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, is a member of the interdisciplinary group associated with the driving simulator. “Driving simulation opens up opportunities to evaluate the driving of persons with medical conditions in a safe environment, and afford opportunities for training or intervention,” she said. “In the future, the use of autonomous or connected vehicles has the potential to open new avenues of mobility for persons who have difficulty driving or may not be able to drive, and we hope that UF can continue to build its national and international reputation in driving simulation research”.

For example, Sherrilene Classen, Ph.D., MPH, currently professor and director of the School of Occupational Therapy at Elborn College in London, Ontario (Canada), is incoming chair of the UF Department of Occupational Therapy. She is recognized internationally for her scientific work in driver screening, assessment or intervention in behaviorally or medically-at-risk drivers. She is also the editor of an in-press simulator book, entitled “Best Evidence and Best Practices in Driving Simulation: A Guide for Health Care Professionals”, to be released in March 2017 through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Press.

“With driverless vehicle and technology becoming a reality, many questions still need to be answered,” Classen said. “For example, research is urgently needed to examine an optimal fit between the person, the smart vehicle, and the smart environment, Dr. Classen said. Specifically, we are interested in knowing how this new technology can enhance – or not – the driving performance of the driver.”

The UF driving simulator can contribute to the understanding of human-vehicle interaction in a variety of settings. Specific and targeted programming is possible to assess the person’s driving performance under a variety of conditions, including day vs. night, sunshine vs. rain, rural vs. urban areas, etc.  Likewise, a variety of populations can be assessed, which include those with medical conditions (e.g., Parkinson’s) compromising their fitness to drive, those who have slowed processing speed as a result of normal aging, those who are prone to distraction due to a condition such as ADHD, or those with hypervigilance or traumatic brain injury such as returning combat veterans.

However, in order for researchers to use the simulator, instructional material needs to be created and a support system established for the upkeep of the lab and equipment. This effort is currently being led by Siva Srinivasan, an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Coastal Engineering at UF. Srinivasan is working with graduate students and staff on such an endeavor.

“We are developing training material to help UF researchers get a better understanding of the simulator capabilities and to learn about the protocols for using it for research projects,” Srinivasan said.

Other features of UF’s simulator include a modular, scalable system to which can be added a motion base, video capture, eye-tracking and more. The graphical interface (GUI) also gives the developer the option to drag and drop objects into the virtual world such as pedestrians, vehicles and more.

“Overall, this version is more mature and refined, using some of the latest technologies,” said Jason Rogers, coordinator of computer applications in the UF College of Public Health & Health Professions. Rogers is working closely with the driving simulator’s interdisciplinary team. He says that the simulator lab will be open to the UF community and hopes to see it used in various projects across campus and within the state.

“We are excited about the excellent research being done here at UF, whether in our specific discipline or another field,” he said.  “I think having a driving simulator lab like this here at UF is just another part of the “Gator Good, bringing in the brightest minds to solve our toughest challenges, together.”