Secrets of the Virginia campus: Driving simulator lab

Tucked off of Leesburg Pike in Ashburn, Va. amid fields and corporate offices are a teal Buick Regal and an old red truck cabin. But they are anything but the average sedan and pickup found in parking lots – instead, they form the backbone of GW’s Driving Simulator Lab.

The lab, located at the University’s Virginia campus, is part of the Center for Intelligent Systems Research, which operates within the School of Engineering and Applied Science and studies the application of “smart” technologies in vehicles.

Led by Dr. Azim Eskandarian, CISR has been recognized as an area of excellence within SEAS since 2002. It is located next door to GW’s National Crash Analysis Center, a separate entity that examines the dynamics of vehicle safety on the road.

Examples of technologies that the CISR develops include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings and electronic speed limitation.

The technologies range in the degree of intervention they provide to the driver in a particular situation. The least intrusive type, according to Eskandarian, is pure information, followed by audiovisual warnings and “haptic responses,” in which control of the vehicle is taken over by a computer.

But the implementation of these features into cars is a different story altogether. The technology must be fail safe, and haptic response systems are more difficult to incorporate because of the legal issues associated with transferring control from the driver to a computer.

“It must be totally robust and fault-proof,” Eskandarian said, referring to the performance of intelligent systems in vehicles.

One of the specific areas Eskandarian works on is drowsy driver detection. What spurred further research, he said, was the realization that the previously available technology, a vision detection system, was not the only way to detect sleepiness at the wheel.

“It turns out that steering behavior is actually an indicator of how tired you are behind the wheel. So you need a smart algorithm that detects drowsy conditions as indicated by steering behavior,” Eskandarian said.

The Hatchet visited the center’s Driving Simulator Laboratory to see how this research unfolds in action. Test subjects drive a vehicle in a simulated video environment projected on three screens in front of the car. As they are driving, a vast array of sensors measures driving behavior, which is compiled into a large data file and analyzed for patterns.

How the vehicle responds to the driver, such as in steering and braking feel, has been preset and may be altered by computer.

Eskandarian said the state-of-the-art simulator is an ideal venue to study driving behavior because it allows the researcher to create an environment that can be scientifically reproduced over time.

“We study vehicle controls, dynamics and infrastructure to improve safety. The simulator is used to research a driver’s response to hazardous situations in a safe, repetitive environment,” said Eskandarian.

The center receives funding both from GW and the government to carry out its research. So far one company, O.E.M. Truck Accessories, has licensed the technology, and Eskandarian is currently in the process of applying for a patent.

“To bring it to the product stage requires more work,” Eskandarian said.

In the meantime Eskandarian remains committed to uncovering new ways to aid drivers in hazardous situations on the road. In terms of futuristic technologies such as self-propelling vehicles, he says that this is a definite possibility, but one that remains to be studied.

“The technology is there, but of course these are concepts that still have to be worked out,” Eskandarian said.

For now, the focus remains on creating and implementing systems that strike a balance between helping drivers and not becoming overly invasive. For this Eskandarian said he is grateful for the internal support he receives from GW.

“We started from zero,” he said. “Our program steadily grew from not existing to being very productive.”

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