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Page updated June 2, 2011

 Driving Simulators

Overview of the UMTRI Simulator

IN 2011, UMTI will upgrade the current simulator with RealTime Technologies software and a new cab provided by Nissan. More details will be provide in mid-2011.

UMTRI has a fixed-base driving simulator, that uses DriveSafety software to schedule events to occur, create the associated scenes (examples of which are below), and to sense and record driver reactions. UMTRI's driving simulator currently runs version 1.6.2 of the DriveSafety software. This is the third driving simulator UMTRI has had, with the first 2 being internally developed starting in about 1990. The DriveSafety software is found at most of the top tier universities in the U.S., as well as at GM, Ford, Delphi, and Motorola.

(Traffic, traffic signals are programmable)

Rural with Fog



The simulator hardware and software is supplemented by a custom UMTRI-designed audio-visual (AV) system. The DriveSafety simulator has been used in studies of driving workload, in-vehicle devices (navigation systems, cell phones), warning systems, and the effects of health on driving (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, driver age), and other topics.

The UMTRI Driving Simulator hardware consists of a cab, computers, projectors, and miscellaneous AV equipment. To provide reliability, all key simulator components have uninterruptible power supplies.

The cab is a full-size vehicle with a touch screen center console, a unique, computer-controlled back-projected LCD speedometer/tachometer cluster, operating foot controls, a torque motor to provide realistic force feedback on the steering wheel, and a haptic seat with 8 vibrating motors. The in-cab displays can be controlled by Macintosh or Windows computers running RealBasic or Visual Basic software. The haptic seat vibrators have been used in studies of lane departure and forward collision warning. Beneath the cab is a base shaker to provide Z-axis vibration.

Because several recent studies have concerned warning systems, audio in the cab has received considerable attention. Sounds are presented by a 10-speaker system from a Nissan Altima, supplemented by a 5-speaker system for road sounds. The simulator software generates 3D audio, including engine noise, wind noise, tire squeal, and other sounds. There are also two speakers in the headrest of the driver’s seat that have been used for warning sounds.

Road scenes are projected on 5 forward screens (by 5 projectors) almost 16 feet from the driver (200 degree field of view) and a rear channel 12 feet away (40 degree field of view). Given the desire to simulate conditions in which far acuity limits viewing the road scene, this is reasonably close to 20 feet, and is greater than is the case in many academic simulators. Each channel is 1024x768, is anti-aliased, and updates at 60 Hz. The center channel will eventually be upgraded to a higher resolution. The wide field of view is particular useful for studies of merging situations. However, in some situations, to minimize opportunities for motion discomfort, the side channels may be turned off. Graphics are generated by 6 Linux computers (1/scene projector) whose actions are coordinated by another Linux computer that in turn is controlled by a Windows computer that provides the experimenter interface.

Simulated worlds are created using tiles (as in SimCity). There are about 250 tiles in the library, including scenes from rural, urban, residential, industrial, and expressway settings including intersections with programmable traffic signals. All roads comply with AASHTO and MUTCD standards. Scenes are currently daytime only, though bad weather (fog, rain, snow) can be simulated. Below are some example images.

The following video (approx 4 minutes long) shows two situations typically experienced in the simulator; an intersection, and highway driving. The video shows multiple perspectives including inside the vehicle and from the driver's perspective. It also has an overview showing the front 3 video channels from outside the vehicle.

To view the video, Real Player 10.0 or greater must be installed on your computer. To download the newest version of Real Player, please click HERE. Apple Users: Please hold the control button when clicking the link above. This will save the file to the desktop and you can run it from there.

Low Quality Video (1Mb) for Dial up Connections

Real Player Format

High Quality Video (12.5Mb) for High Speed/LAN Connections

Real Player Format

Traffic is programmable, either following the general rules of the road or as scripted (following at a certain distance, lead vehicle slowing in front of the subject, side vehicles cutting off the subject, cars pulling in front of the subject, etc). In some experiments, over 20 vehicles have been controlled, as well as several pedestrians. There are many types of vehicles, including sedans, sports utility vehicles,

To accelerate scenario and experiment development, UMTRI, with funding from GM, has developed software with a point and click interface for developing scenarios for some expressways and urban drives. That software allows for quickly setting what each object in the world (each car and traffic light) does for each section road. Normally, scenario development takes 1-3 months of engineering time to create the desired world and write the needed scripts in TCL to control scenarios. Where the UMTRI scenario tools can be used, development times should be reduced to weeks.

Typically, about 25 driver- and vehicle-performance measures (steering wheel angle, throttle position, yaw angle, speed, lateral lane position, time to collision, distance to the lead vehicle, etc.) are recorded at up to 60 Hz by the main simulator computer. In addition, if there is an in-vehicle task to perform such a entering a destination, keystrokes and keystrokes times are recorded and time synched with the main simulator computer. That data may be logged by an UMTRI-written simulation of a real interface, or by sponsor-provided hardware and software. For sponsor-provided systems, it is important to provide a TCP/IP port with access to user input, which often is not the case. Typically, experiments generate 2.5Mb of raw data to reduce and analyze per hour of subject time.

In addition, for some experiments, a Seeing Machines version 3.0 eye-fixation system (2 cameras, 1 Windows computer) has been installed in the driving simulator. This system generates a considerable amount of data, and because of associated costs, is used selectively.

A particularly unique feature of the UMTRI driving simulator is the extensive AV system for recording driver performance and presenting video, of which the projectors to show road scenes are a small part. Sample images follow. There are microphones in the cab to capture drivers’ reactions, as well 7 video cameras (driver face, hands, driver’s feet and foot controls, several views of the instrument panel), as well as all projected images, the instrument panel and any interior displays, making it possible to have a variety of views available to the experimenter for recording on a quad-split image which is be recorded onto a DVD for later reviewing. Control is achieved using 8x4 and 16x16 video switchers, and a 12x4 audio mixer. This system was the basis for the AV system UMTRI built for a simulator at GM.

For further information see:

Anonymous (2002). New Driving Simulator, UMTRI Research Review, April-June, 33(2), 1-5.

When Are Driving Simulator Tests Favored?

In driving research, there is no one best tool. Sometimes one needs a screwdriver and sometimes a hammer. In driving, the options are often to conduct a paper and pencil evaluation, to use a simple mockup, to collect data in a driving simulator, or to collect data on the road. The “road” can refer to a test track or a public road.

Often, the selection of a test context is between in a simulator and on the road (in a real vehicle). The simulated situation provides complete control of the test situation. The exact same conditions of weather, road surface condition, ambient illumination, vehicle positions, and speeds, etc., can be repeated time and time again, and for every subject. In the real word, even with confederate vehicles, there are some things beyond control, with the weather being one of them.

Simulators are also favored where risk to drivers is an issue. People cannot really die in a driving simulation, so they can be exposed to crash provocative situations that a human subjects review board would never accept for an on-the-road study.

However, simulations are just that, not the real world, only an approximation, and ultimately, some time before production, concepts need to be assessed in real vehicles on public roads.

At UMTRI, both approaches are used, with the choice depending on the maturity of the solution being examined, the time of year, the need to examine daylight vs. nighttime conditions, risk to subjects, and so forth. In very large projects, it is often the case that concepts are first explored in the driving simulator, and then when the alternatives have been narrowed to a small set (and thought to be safe enough for use by test subjects), explored on the road.

Can someone rent the driving simulator to teach my son/daughter how to drive?

The simulator is a research tool, but could be used to develop an educational program to help teenagers learn how to drive. At the present time, UMTRI does not have such a program set up, or set of validated scenarios to use for that purpose. UMTRI is very interested in developing such, but a research project to develop and validate scenarios is far beyond the means of all but the extremely wealthy (hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Can someone rent the simulator to do research or testing?

Yes, but…Many have the mistaken impression that since they can drive, they know how to conduct a driving study. A parallel claim would be that knowing how to eat should provide the knowledge of how to study eating and eating disorders. Knowing how to do a task and how to study it are quite different.

In the case of the driving research, the issues are what should be the dependent and independent measures, what should be the sampling rates, how much time should be allocated for various conditions and practice, and so forth. Furthermore, there are not existing worlds or scenarios that are ready to use, so they need to be created for each simulator experiment. For example, if one wanted an urban scenario, the spacing between each intersection pair needs to be specified as well as the timing of each traffic signal and the rules that cause each signal to change. Also, the movement of each vehicle and each pedestrian needs to be specified for each time period in each scenario. Custom scenarios are created because there are not standards for such and each investigator wants a world that that has been designed to specifically answer their questions.

Depending on the project, creating the experiment requires at least a few weeks of effort from the principal investigator and the simulator engineer, and then a week to a few months to create the desired scenarios. Because this requires intimate knowledge of the simulator, knowledge gained from years of use, this is something an outsider could not do efficiently. The new UMTRI scenario creator has the potential of reducing scenario development times substantially.

When testing is in progress, the simulator engineer needs to start up the simulator and load in the desired files, troubleshoot the system when problems occur, operate the simulator during the experiment, save the data from each block, and shut down the simulator at the end of the day. Thus, even during the data collection phase, one needs to add the burdened rate of the simulator engineer to the hourly charge for simulator time.

Finally, once the data is collected, it needs to be reduced and filtered, and then analyzed. Those tasks require researchers with prior experience in processing driving simulator data.

Thus, prospective sponsors often think they can economize by just paying for simulator time. However, since they are not intimately familiar with the simulator, they do not know how to program scenarios, operate the simulator, or process the resulting data. UMTRI’s unique contribution to a project is primarily the expertise of its research staff in conducting driving studies.

Furthermore, if UMTRI is not involved in the analysis of the data and writing the final report, then the case for having UMTRI personnel as the authors of resulting reports and articles is weak. Keep in mind that the University evaluates UMTRI personnel (meaning job titles are selected, salaries are set, and pay raises are determined) based on the quantity of written output. The University wants to maximize the intellectual contributions of its personnel.

Technical Details of the UMTRI Driving Simulator


Side channels

4 Epson Powerlite 703c

Front channel

1 Canon Realis SX50

Rear channel

1 Epson Powerlite 82c

Instrument panel

1 Sharp XG-E850U


Host and side channels

5 Custom built PCs running Linux

Forward and rear channels

2 Dell Optiplex GX270 running Linux

Experimenter interface

1 Dell Optiplex 745 running Windows

Instrument panel

1 Mac G3

Secondary task

1 Mac G4

Sight Distances (Subject to Screen)

Center (16 ft)
Left (16 ft) Right (16 ft)
Far Left (13 ft) Far Right (13.5 ft)
Rear (12 ft)

Screen Materials

Front, rear, left and right screens

4 permanent screens (drywall with special reflective paint)

Far left and far right screens

2 Custom built DaLite pull-down matte white screens

AV Equipment

16x16 video switcher

Knox 16x16 HB

8x4 video switcher

Sigma Electronics RC-840