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What This Innovative Driving Simulator Means for Road Safety

How researchers at Toronto Rehab are using advanced technology to measure driving performance and study the effects of sleep deprivation, medications and more

DriverLab driving simulator inside of Toronto Rehab

Last fall, researchers at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute launched DriverLab, Canada’s most advanced driving simulator. At the time, CAA Magazine had the chance to get behind the wheel. Now that the simulator has been up and running for a few months, we checked in with Dr. Geoff Fernie, research institute director at Toronto Rehab, to see what kinds of studies are in progress—and what implications they might have for road safety.

What makes DriverLab different

Unlike many other advanced simulators, which are used to test vehicle design, DriverLab is meant to evaluate driver performance. It’s especially useful for testing how drivers cope with hazardous situations in a low-stakes environment.

“The main thing about the simulator is that you can do things that would otherwise be too dangerous,” says Dr. Fernie. “You can also set up scenarios that you can reproduce identically, so you can repeat the situation and measure the effect.”

Blonde woman with orange sweater drives the test vehicle on a virtual road 

To that end, researchers have developed different scenarios to test particular driving skills. To evaluate risk-taking behaviour, for example, they might put a slow virtual vehicle on screen and see if the driver waits to overtake it safely.

Another advantage of the DriverLab simulator is that it has room for a passenger. “That passenger can be an expert driver who can give an opinion that isn’t just numbers, but a holistic opinion as to whether the behaviour of that [driver] when faced with that challenge was safe,” explains Dr. Fernie.

What it’s like to drive the simulator

DriverLab is a self-contained unit that’s part of the Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory (CEAL) at Toronto Rehab’s iDAPT labs. It’s one of four pods that host the different labs at CEAL and can be interchanged on a hydraulic platform that offers six degrees of motion.

Inside, the pod is large enough to fit an Audi A3 hatchback. It’s been raised off the ground, there’s nothing under the hood and the back seat is full of computer equipment, but from the driver’s seat, it looks and feels like a normal car.

Woman drives test vehicle in a simulated rain storm at night 

A 360-degree projection system and surround sound create an immersive driving experience. During a simulated rainstorm, a sprayer actually showers the windshield with water; during night simulations, a pair of light bulbs flick on to generate the glare of oncoming headlights. And thanks to the hydraulic platform, the A3 shakes slightly when virtual cars pass at high speeds.

What’s being studied at DriverLab

One of the first studies to run on DriverLab is on drowsy driving, in which subjects drive the simulator on what Dr. Fernie calls “very boring roads” overnight. Though there are cameras on the car’s dashboard to monitor drivers, the study also measures breathing and heart sounds.

“We need to identify the physiological signals that are most reliable that occur before you have a dangerous microsleep,” he says. “We’re working toward ultimately having the car be able to detect with some precision when people become drowsy. There are sensors at the moment, but they’re not very good.”

The lab is also preparing for a study on opioid painkillers, in which subjects both with and without chronic pain will drive with and without the medication. Potential future plans include work on the effects of cannabis use on driving and studying what features drivers, especially seniors, want in autonomous vehicles.

Woman drives test vehicle on a simulated freeway 

While it’s too early to look at results of these studies, let alone draw conclusions that could have implications for road regulations or vehicle design, the researchers anticipate that the work will pay off. “All of the work that we do eventually does have an impact,” says Dr. Fernie. “But we have to be very careful that when we talk about it, we really do know what we’re talking about.”

Curious about other driving innovations?

Check out the fun ways drivers are being motivated to be energy efficient and find out whether you’re a road-safety expert with our quiz on the rules of the road.

Also learn about the benefits of a CAA Membership that can earn you a range of perks, from 24/7 roadside assistance to discounted attraction tickets.

Image credit: UHN and Chloe Tse