Get Behind the Wheel
Hop into a driving simulator at the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University, and the first thing you notice is how realistic everything looks.
Recognizable Baltimore buildings whiz by, and the road signs, including overhead signs, are familiar, as are the routes, 100, I-95, I-295 and Pratt Street.
The buildings and streetscapes were carefully crafted from Google images, and the software can add details such as rain, fog, pedestrians, other cars and motorcycles. Oh, and if you blow by that familiar speed limit sign - as we've all done in real driving - you're liable to find yourself with a ticket, courtesy of that realistic-looking police car waiting in the median.
While it's great fun, the two driving simulators - known formally as the Travelers' Behavior Analysis and Simulation Lab - are actually serious research tools, allowing researchers to examine driver's reactions, perceptions and choices. The UC-win/Road software, developed by Forum 8 Co., can create a road network of 20 kilometers by 20 kilometers, about 120 square miles.
Research involving more than 100 drivers addressed a crucial question: Do the overhead signs on highways cause traffic to slow down as people read them? (Short answer: No.) The simulators also allow researchers to examine how effective those signs are in reducing congestion by prompting drivers to consider an alternate route.
Dr. Mansoureh Jeihani is the driving force behind the lab. An associate professor in the Department of Transportation and Urban Infrastructure Studies at Morgan, she has a doctorate in civil engineering, along with a master's in economics, another master's
in socio-economic systems engineering and a bachelor's in computer engineering.
"There are so many capabilities of this simulator; it's unique in that we can make a road network and the driver can select their route," Dr. Jeihani says. "We can study distractions, the effects of inclement weather, and we can look at a work zone and how people react - do they really reduce their speed? We can also conduct research into connected vehicles, which is a very hot topic right now. We can study how drivers react in a CV and what happens if they have to take control of the vehicle."
Dr. Jeihani purchased the $100,000 simulator in 2011 with funding from the National Transportation Center. Its capabilities were unveiled at a grand opening, to which Federal Highway Administration, Maryland Transit Administration and State Highway Administration officials were invited, "and based on that, I got two research projects right away," Dr. Jeihani says.
In 2013, a second simulator, which cost $50,000, was added. The new simulator features a motion platform, which allows a driver to feel bumps like potholes and rumble strips, and can be used for research into road conditions.
Research subjects are given 15 minutes to play around with the simulator and get used to it. Younger drivers, who have grown up with realistic video games, take to it easily.
"Kids are good with it - they know how to do it and they don't have to practice," Dr. Jeihani says. In addition to research, the simulators can be used for educational purposes. Dr. Jeihani's research interests include distracted driving. "Everybody says,
‘Yeah, I know I shouldn't do it, but I'm OK with it.' We can show them here how distracted they are," she says. •