Toyota has let CAR inside its astonishing, $15m driving simulator, designed to research safer driving. You drive an actual Lexus LS460 around a virtual cityscape projected within a 7.1m-wide dome, which itself charges across an area the size of four tennis courts. Ten electric motors generating a combined 9387bhp power this baby. It’s Gran Turismo on the grandest scale.
The simulator, at Toyota’s Higashifuji Technical Centre in Japan, doesn’t look like it’s worth $150,000 though. It looks like an empty warehouse, with a grid of runners embedded in the floor. In the nearest corner is a white dome resembling an elevated salt cellar, which you enter by walking down a gangplank. You feel like an astronaut about to be locked into the space shuttle.
Inside, on a turntable which can tilt up to 25 degrees and spin almost completely, is the LS460. Its matte red paint is designed to eliminate any reflections on the 360-degree screen surrounding the car, fed by eight projectors.
We’re ready. The man from The Telegraph is behind the wheel, I’m strapped into the passenger seat. A disembodied voice is piped into the car through tiny speakers: ‘Turning off lights. System activation.’ I imagine it belongs to a white boilersuit-wearing henchman in a control tower, like in a Bond movie.
The controller kills the lights. There’s a sensation that we’re gliding to our left, as the dome takes position in the centre of the warehouse. This cocktail shaker can fly 35m lengthways, and 20m sideways, at a speed of up 6.1m a second. Inside, the LS460 appears to slide laterally through a brick wall and into the centre of the computer generated ‘road’. It’s a very weird sensation. ‘System ready,’ says Oddjob.
Time to take off in Toyota’s driving simulator
The man from The Telegraph engages Drive and presses the accelerator. Images flow all around the car: buildings, pedestrians, other vehicles. We ‘overtake’ a lorry, and I watch it slide backwards, looking over my shoulder to see it shrink in perspective as it passes towards the rear screen. The way the environment behaves is utterly realistic.
We stop at a red light. Suddenly the man from The Telegraph swings the wheel hard right and floors the pedal, and we take off down the wrong side of the road. The dome flies hard right across the warehouse, mimicking our joyriding. The steering and pedal responses feel true to life, as do the movements: the tilts to simulate the car’s pitch and yaw, and the dome travel mirroring extreme manoeuvres. It never feels 100% realistic though, because the eyes and brain refuse to be deceived, and the screen feels fractionally out of kilter with the car. And the motion makes me feel a little dizzy.
The endgame: zero accidents
But as a research tool, it’s unbeatable. The LS is dotted with cameras to record the driver’s reaction to computer-generated hazards. Short-skirted ladies cause distractions, and you need your wits about you. Pedestrians cross on blind junctions, cyclists weave about. When a child runs out from behind a parked car, I find myself stabbing an imaginary brake pedal as my pulse quickens.
That physical and emotional response is completely realistic. Which makes the simulator a superb, controlled environment to safely collect data about human responses to danger.
Spokesman Takashi Yonekawa says Toyota has already learned a great deal about driver behaviour, since the simulator became operational in April 2008. The goal is to create technology that prevents accidents. But the biggest challenge is working out how and when to warn drivers of a hazard, so they respond in time. Sadly, mankind is the weakest link.
Toyota’s aim is to wipe accidents off the face of the earth. By creating a simulator on a par with NASA’s, it’s taken a big step towards that goal.
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