In the driver's seat

Simulated racing experience may help teach good skills for ordinary driving


Personal, real-world racetrack experience and serpentine virtual reality blur as the Porsche GT3R whistles down the straightaway on the video screen and California's Infineon Raceway coils ahead.

The familiar twin left bends after the end of the straight before the grandstand double-up as rapidly as in real life; so does the sudden rise up a hill that crests at a sharp right turn that can lift the inside wheels into the air. Just like real life except: There is no tight tug from the steering wheel, no sense of G-forces or chest strain against seat belts, and, frankly, no fear. Crash badly here and I need only hit the reset button.

This is simulated racing in the HotSeat Racer, which uses gas and brake pedals, a steering wheel, paddle transmission shifters, a racing seat - all mounted on a chassis - and an electronic simulation complete with surround sound to mimic the behind-the-wheel experience.

It is a three-shift step up from hand-held racing simulators that use joysticks and buttons to maneuver, and even from hand-held "steering wheels" that do the same. And at this level, skills are being honed as the track is memorized. Brake, shift, acceleration and drift points become rote, and familiarity with other driving skills is ingrained.

But can this electronic injection of fun also provide the more basic training that new, young drivers of everyday roadways need from the start? For teen drivers such as Kyle Drake and Roger Gauthier, both of Nottingham, N.H., HotSeat's offering is an exhilarating game, and in test runs, both rapidly become adept at "driving" their race cars ever faster.

Kyle sweats as he concentrates, Roger sits tall and cool - two styles with the same results: controlled high speed. But are they learning anything that might help them as drivers? Would a tamer virtual world that mimics day-to-day driving and its challenges and dangers make them safer teens on the road?

Watching the teens race is Jay Leboff, creator of the HotSeat system, who says he certainly hopes so. Beside him are racers and driving instructors Sandy Stevens and Brett Bogart of Stevens Advanced Driver Training, based in Merrimack, N.H. They have all come to my kitchen, test site of the HotSeat, to try it out and to observe.

The program clearly intrigues the racers: On this system, you can choose from such NASCAR ovals as New Hampshire International Speedway, or Las Vegas or Lowe's Motor Speedways. Or from such twisting global road courses as Belgium's Spa, Italy's Enna Pergusa or New York's Watkins Glen. You can drive many of them in virtual daylight, dawn or dusk, or at night, choosing standard NASCAR cars distinguishable mostly by their numbers or sponsor decals, or such exotics as a Viper GTS/R, Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello and Porsche GT2.

"It certainly makes you concentrate" to finish a race, Stevens says during a turn behind the wheel. Yet he wonders whether time spent here can translate to effective driver training - given a program written, say, to replicate the emergency lane changes, panic braking, controlled back-and-forth swerves and dangers of tailgating that his company teaches on such free-play settings as closed airport runways. Is there a program, he wonders, that can give a true sense of "a car being in motion, how the driver feels being in motion?"

In some ways, yes, say those who develop simulators, those who use them in various forms of instruction and research, the U.S. military, commercial airlines and trucking companies. But these units cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and training is expensive far beyond that.

But on a tactile, elementary and far cheaper level, there have been results.

A Korean study has shown that potential drivers suffering from some spinal injuries can be taught the mechanics of operating a vehicle with special controls.

And the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is using simulators to school elderly drivers in the new technologies that are moving into automotive cockpits at warp speed, forcing them, in some cases, to "unlearn" driving habits.

"No one method is going to give you all the skills" needed to safely drive, said Deborah Quackenbush, vice president of commercial production for Raydon Corp., a Daytona Beach, Fla., maker of ground-vehicle simulators for military and commercial use and for driver training. Quackenbush listed four methods of training - classroom, range (such as Stevens' classes), simulation and the standard behind-the-wheel training of driver's education.

Already established are the classroom and driver's education, which go hand in hand across the land. But between the two - which even in combination are often criticized as lacking in tough real skills - are the range and the simulator. That is where Leboff's notion and Stevens' open range might find common ground.

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