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How Stuff Works at Ford - The Ultimate Driving Simulator

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author photo by Autotrader January 2011

Inside a rather nondescript, off-white building on one of Ford’s Detroit-area campuses sits one of the most advanced driving simulators in North America. In operation since 2001, the VIRTTEX (Virtual Test Track Experiment) is used by Ford to figure out how vehicles can help drivers avoid accidents and interact more efficiently with their vehicles.

“We’re not really worried about improving zero to sixty times on a vehicle in this lab,” said Mike Blommer, Ford’s Technical Leader and Manager of the VIRTTEX Lab. “Some of the studies we’ve conducted you would never think of conducting out in the real world, or even on a test track with actual vehicles because of the potential for collisions and associated interactions.”

In North America, only the University of Iowa has a more advanced driving simulator developed in conjunction with the National Highway Transportation Administration. Even so, VIRTTEX’s 12 feet of hydraulically-actuated travel gives it a range of motion that can simulate almost every situation a driver might encounter in the real world.

Over the past decade, Ford has used the machine to help develop everything from warning signals–including auditory, visual, and vibrating–to making the SmartGauge with EcoGuide display on Ford hybrids more user friendly.

“We look at active safety technologies–things like forward collision warnings, lane departure warnings, warnings for drowsy drivers, and those types of things,” said Blommer. “The question we try to answer in this lab to a large degree is ‘If we can provide somebody a warning, what type of warning should it be?’ We measure everything about the driver and the environment, analyze those results, and find out which type of warning provides the most appropriate reaction across a population of drivers–young drivers, older drivers, male, female–all types of drivers.”

Interestingly enough, the MyFord Touch driver display system has recently been criticized by Consumer Reports for being too distracting and complicated–yet it was partially developed at the VIRTTEX facility. “We take the criticism seriously, but what we’re finding is that our customers love MyFord Touch,” said Wes Sherwood, a Ford Safety Communications representative, in defense of the system. “We’re going to constantly improve and take the feedback and make it better.”

Although the VIRTTEX system was essentially designed by Ford in-house and built for about $7 million with the help of many suppliers and contractors, Ford says that other industries played a big role in making such a machine possible. “We leverage technology from a few different areas including flight simulation and, maybe surprisingly, gaming and home theater,” said Blommer. “It used to be that you would need lots of computers to generate a 3D visual surrounding, and now what it’s down to is essentially a couple of NVIDIA or ATI graphics cards and that’s all driven by gaming technology and home theater projector technology.”

Ford says that VIRTTEX has given them an edge in the marktetplace and made Ford vehicles safer. “We’re a leader in bringing advanced technologies to the mainstream,” said Sherwood. “It’s one thing for an $80,000 vehicle to have these technologies, but we’re bringing things like radar warning systems to average folks and we’re really proud of bringing that technology quicker than others.”

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How Stuff Works at Ford - The Ultimate Driving Simulator - Autotrader