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AMTA brings virtual reality to driver training


CALGARY, Alta. – They may not be as much guilty fun as Grand Theft Auto or Gran Turismo, but the Alberta Motor Transport Association hopes its new driving simulators will prove to be an important tool in the training of today’s and tomorrow’s truck drivers.

To help ensure the sims can reach their potential audience as well as possible, the AMTA had two built, one in a permanent installation at its Edmonton office with the other a portable, trailer-mounted unit it can take right to a client’s place of operation. And though they’ve been in the possession of the organization for a few months now, the AMTA chose its annual Management Conference at Lake Louise as the venue for the official “roll-out” of the trailer-based unit, a substantial piece of hardware pulled like a fifth wheel behind a Ford F-350 pickup truck.

Michael Payton, the AMTA’s IRT coordinator for Southern Alberta, is the go-to guy for the simulator and he was on-hand outside the Chateau Lake Louise for the official unveiling of the portable unit on the second day of the Conference. Truck West caught up with him inside the trailer, where he showed off the technology and outlined its capabilities.

“It’s a full-axis, full-motion truck driving simulator,” Payton explained, noting “we can drive automatic, 10-speed, 13-speed and 18-speed transmissions and we can pick from a dump truck, a tandem axle gravel truck, 53-ft. dry box, 53-ft. flatbed, school bus, Super-B or motor coach.”

The sim can even be configured to mimic a service rig for oil service work and can be used to simulate a variety of on-road situations as well via 65 programs from which to choose.

“We can teach anything, from learning how to shift for a basic
driver to (driving techniques to maximize) fuel economy,” Payton said. “We can teach rollover protection, we can teach advanced driving techniques, how to properly navigate left and right turns.”

Payton admitted that he learned how to shift thanks to the simulator. “I went out and drove a tractor-trailer in the city of Calgary and successfully drove an 18-speed transmission after learning off this thing,” he said.

The technology comes courtesy of Virage Simulations of Montreal, who Payton said built the simulator itself and then had it installed into the trailer before delivering it to the AMTA. Besides the simulator itself, which includes a panoramic setup of three large LCD video screens meant to give the student driver a realistic view in front and beside, the trailer also contains a debrief station.

Located only a few feet away from the actual simulator, its monitor (mounted on the wall next to the table) mirrors the sim’s data.

“We can have students sit (at the table) while we have a driver (in the seat),” Payton said, “and since they’re not together the students can watch (the driver) and they’re not bothering the driver (during the exercise).”

Payton said he can teach four people at one time comfortably, rotating through them as they each get some seat time. Sessions are generally about 10 minutes, though Payton noted that “20 minutes is the absolute maximum length.”

At the other end of the trailer, behind a Wizard of Oz-like curtain, are the brains of the simulator.

“There’s five computers that run it,” Payton said, “one master and four slaves and the four slaves do different functions. One runs the video, one runs the motion, one runs the scenarios and the other does the control panels.”

The result is a high-resolution audio and video extravaganza that provides a safe – and quite fun – way to learn real-world driving skills in realistic scenarios.

“It’s as close to real as possible,” Payton said. “It’s 2D, not 3D but once you get used to driving in the 2D world, it’s very realistic.”

Pricing for fleets is very realistic as well.

“There’s a movement fee if we leave the city of Calgary,” Payton said, “but if you’re a regular paid (AMTA) member it’s $30 an hour, with me included. There are businesses in Calgary now that are charging close to $200 an hour with an instructor (for such simulations).”

The fixed simulator in Edmonton uses the same technology, and the rates are the same (sans “carrying charges”).

If the simulators’ early reception is any indication, they could turn out to be a very popular tool. Payton said it has already been quite in demand despite its lower profile before the Lake Louise coming out party.

“I was out three times this week, training,” he said, “and we’ve been out doing a bunch of demonstrations for different people who wanted to see it.”

Payton said they’ve been hired by “a couple of different companies” so far to do short training sessions, and the reaction has been “absolutely amazing. Skeptical people, truck drivers who’ve been driving for 25, 30 years will come in and think it isn’t real enough, but once they get into it, their tone changes completely and they think it’s a great training tool.”


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