A head-mounted sensor array monitors eye movement and fatigue during an experiement at Ford.
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Almost a decade before Marilyn Palazzolo ever considered the new Ford Taurus she test drove last week, engineers in suburban Detroit used a huge, super-expensive piece of technology to figure out how she would answer her phone.
They also studied how best to keep her from drifting into another lane, how she should change the song on the radio, even where her coffee should go - all to keep Mrs. Palazzolo's "eyes on the road and hands on the wheel."
All of this design and testing work happened in a virtual environment - years before the Temperance woman's red Taurus tester moved its first inch down an assembly line.
And while it may ultimately save her life by avoiding an accident, virtual testing has already saved automakers millions of dollars and months of valuable development time in speeding new products to market.
Ford's VIRTTEX, or the Virtual Test Track Experiment module, is set up at the firm's Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich.
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"Once you have a good virtual grasp of how drivers act, it can't help but save you money because you don't have to build things," said Larry Fisher, an automotive technology analyst with ABI Research, in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "From every standpoint, you have to know how drivers are likely to act, so building a virtual model makes the development process more efficient, effective, and cheaper."
Domestic and foreign automakers have been using virtual testing for more than a decade, but just as digital technology has advanced in motion pictures - consider the growth between Jar Jar Binks of 1999's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to the Navi of 2009's Avatar - so too has virtual automotive testing technology evolved in recent years.
"This whole dome moves. Think of it as a big video game on steroids," said Mike Bloomer, lead technician working on Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment at the firm's Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich.
The giant enclosed dome, similar to full flight simulators used by the military and airlines, can move in several directions as much as 12 feet on six large hydraulic pistons to give the test driver in the full-sized vehicle inside the dome the physical sense of driving.
Launched by Ford in 2001, the simulator has been used to assist developers on any number of projects in the previous decade, including driver fatigue and distraction studies, Mr. Bloomer said. The fully moving dome is the only one of its kind being used by an automaker in North America, although every other automaker employs some form of virtual testing in their research operations, analysts said.
"The key thing we really focus on in this laboratory is the driver, how the driver either interacts with the vehicle or with the driving environment," Mr. Bloomersaid.
Like its competitor, General Motors Co. employs a sophisticated - albeit stationary - virtual testing laboratory on its Tech Center campus in Warren, Mich. GM's "Human Machine Interface Simulator" uses a single stationary vehicle in the center of a room surrounded by seven hi-definition video projectors "that project a virtual roadway around the screen," GM spokesman Kevin Kelly said.
"We test various configurations of new components this way, measuring how long it takes for someone to change the climate controls if they're in one position versus another, how long their eyes leave the roadway," he said.
Chrysler Group LLC also uses videogame-like simulator technologies to test new products in an almost-real-world environment, said company spokesman Nick Cappa.
That laboratory in Auburn Hills, Mich., has been extremely busy recently as the automaker races to revamp more than a dozen products in 2010 as it marks its first year out of bankruptcy protection this month.
"The driving simulator is critical … for items such as driver behavior, including driver distraction and work load calculation. It is also instrumental for new technology development," to improve areas where passengers interact with their automobiles, Mr. Cappa said. Chrysler recently used its virtual driving simulators to design new shifters, instrument clusters, and even audio units, he said.
Such virtual modeling and research has become commonplace among both domestic and foreign automakers, especially as they globalize their design efforts to sell similar vehicles in diverse markets like Europe, South America, and North America.
Ford Motor Co. last month invited journalists to its product development center in Dearborn to show how the automaker explores proposed designs virtually, testing them - and their customers' interactions - in an effort to eliminate problems before they arise.
In 2001 its simulator began by testing hand-held versus hands-free cell phones, Mr. Bloomer said.
"Those results were really what kind of led to the guiding principles that led to the development of [voice command control technologies] SYNC and MyFord Touch."
For their part, the car-buying public rarely notices the engineering efforts expended to produce the vehicles on dealer lots, let alone stop to consider how many different considerations go into decisions like where to locate a knob, or whether a button is more efficient.
But automakers say such virtual testing has significantly reduced their development costs - savings that can be passed along to consumers.
Last week's test drive at Brondes Ford was not Mrs. Palazzolo's first experience with advanced technology: a Ford escape SUV she owned had integrated back-up alert sensors that she said guided the way she drove.
"It saved me many times, because I just backed up until it beeped," Mrs. Palazzolo said, recounting tales of nonsmashed tricycles and lawn mowers that were saved by the warning signal. "I loved it."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: