driving simulator

The University of Minnesota’s HumanFIRST Laboratory recently completed a significant upgrade of its driving simulators, resulting in one of the most advanced driving environment simulation systems at any academic institution in the United States.

The improvements were possible thanks to a 2017 Research Infrastructure Investment Program award of just over $186,000 from the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research. One-to-one match funding was provided by the laboratory’s own accumulated funds gathered through usage fees.

The HumanFIRST Laboratory is a facility of the UMN’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and is affiliated with the Roadway Safety Institute. It conducts research to collect, analyze, and understand driver behavior data generated during driving simulation studies and field tests of enhanced human-machine interfaces designed to reduce risky driving behaviors.

The HumanFIRST Lab houses two advanced driving simulators, which together host most of its research experiments. Funding from the award was used to overhaul components of both simulators. The laboratory’s immersive simulator replaced the 2002 Saturn full-vehicle cab with a modern sedan and an upgraded three-axis motion system. The previous discrete, five-panel projector system was replaced with five high-resolution projectors onto a smooth, cylindrical display and LCD-embedded side mirrors. The new vehicle cab facilitates research into human-computer interaction with its glass dash and large touchscreen display. Finally, the computer systems operating the immersive simulator and its companion portable simulator used for off-site and interdepartmental collaborations were replaced with the latest-generation computing hardware and graphical software for creating the simulated driving worlds.

RSI director Max Donath says that when the immersive simulator was originally installed, it was state-of-the-art and among the best in the country, but the primary components of both simulators were nearing the end of their lives.

This upgrade is expected to re-engage Minnesota as a national leader in driving behavior research. “As automated vehicle technology continues to advance, it will be critical to test machine-driver handoff between automated and manual driving modes in simulated settings,” Donath says. Demand for research in automated vehicles is only expected to grow, he adds.

HumanFIRST Lab director Nichole Morris says the lab’s simulators will also allow her research team to safely test impaired driving performance to better understand and deal with drivers who may be fatigued, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or have mild cognitive impairment. “Impaired driving continues to account for at least one third of fatal crashes on our roadways, and little progress in this area has been made in recent years,” she says.

An open house of the facility, offering demonstrations of the simulator and discussions with research staff, was held December 18, 2018.