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December 17, 2012

Driving simulator tested as alternative to in-car driving tests

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A virtual reality driving simulator installed at the local Department of Motor Vehicles will allow the state to determine whether high-tech simulations could one day be an alternative to in-car driving tests.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine are testing the effectiveness and fairness of virtual reality driving tests by installing driving simulators at both the Pantops DMV and at a Fairfax-area DMV. Over the next year, local residents will have the opportunity, on a purely volunteer basis, to try out the simulator. The UVA researchers will compile data from the test, along with opinions from the volunteers, and forward their findings to state lawmakers. Participating in the test has no effect on volunteers’ ability to obtain or renew their driver’s licenses. Individual test results are confidential and will not be shared with the local DMV.

One benefit of a driving simulator is that it can ensure consistency among tests, says UVA researcher Daniel Cox, PhD. “If you get evaluated in Southwest Virginia or Northern Virginia, you would be held to the same standards,” he says, adding that a virtual test allows for the simulation of various weather conditions and highway obstacles. “You can expose people to hazardous conditions [in virtual reality], which you can’t in the real world,” Cox says.

Driving simulation

Sitting in the simulator is like sitting in a car. There’s a seat, a seatbelt, a full-sized steering wheel, turn signals, side mirrors, a gas pedal and a brake. But instead of peering out at the road, drivers are surrounded by large video screens that create an immersive driving environment. “It’s not the same thing as driving your own car, but it requires the same skills,” says Cox, a leading researcher in the area of driving simulations.

How to participate

Cox hopes to have 1,000 volunteers test the two simulators within the next 12 months. The test takes about an hour. People interested in participating can either volunteer when visiting the DMV or they can set up an appointment by calling the Pantops simulation supervisor, Gabriel Camacho, at 703.728.0490.

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