Infrastructure award to improve driving simulators in U of M lab

driving simulatorThe U of M’s HumanFIRST Laboratory has received a 2017 Research Infrastructure Investment Program award of just over $186,000 from the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR).

The lab is a facility of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. It conducts research to collect, analyze, and understand driver behavior generated during driving simulation studies and field tests of enhanced human-machine interfaces designed to reduce risky driving behaviors.

The lab houses two advanced driving simulators, which together host most of its research experiments. Funds from the award will be used to overhaul components of both simulators. One-to-one match funding will be provided by the lab’s own accumulated funds gathered through usage fees.

The laboratory’s immersive simulator will see a replacement of its 2002 Saturn full-vehicle cab with a modern sedan and an upgraded three-axis motion system. The existing discrete, five-panel projector system will be replaced with five high-resolution projectors onto a smooth, cylindrical display and will include LCD-embedded side mirrors. The new vehicle cab will facilitate research into driver 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 will be replaced with the latest-generation computing hardware and graphical software for creating the simulated driving worlds.

“When it was originally installed, the immersive simulator was state-of-the-art and among the best in the country,” says mechanical engineering professor Max Donath, who, with HumanFIRST Lab director Nichole Morris, submitted the funding request. “However, competing institutions have now surpassed our capabilities and many primary components of both simulators were nearing the end of their life.”

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.

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.

The Research Infrastructure Investment Program awards totaled over $2.5 million from OVPR and matching funds from the supporting colleges or centers. The 13 projects that received funding this year will impact researchers from 2 campuses, 7 colleges, and 21 departments, units, and centers.

A history of human factors research

U of M researchers have studied the human factors elements of transportation for decades. The U’s first wraparound driving simulator was completed in 1995; since then, research areas have included the effects of impairment caused by distraction, age, alcohol, and fatigue, and the unique safety issues of teen and elderly drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Human-centered technology was also the focus of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute and the Roadway Safety Institute, two federal University Transportation Centers based at CTS. Both centers worked to develop systems that are adapted to the driver, rather than forcing the driver to adapt to the technology, with the ultimate goal of reducing crash rates and saving lives.

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