Driver Training Needs Spawn New Business Opportunities

Article excerpt

Training police officers to make risky maneuvers while behind the wheel can be expensive and potentially deadly. If the driving is done in a simulator, however, troopers can conduct high-speed chases and dangerous patrol missions without risking lives or vehicles.

In this context, the benefits of simulation-based training seem obvious. But it has only been in recent years that organizations such as police departments have been able to afford high-quality simulators. That technology used to be too expensive and the data too massive and complex for practical use. Today, even lower-end simulators, which are PC-based, offer the high-resolution graphics needed to make the training realistic enough for certain applications.

The city of San Antonio for example, has numbers that prove that simulators are a good deal. In June of 1999, San Antonio police officers were involved in 58 intersection accidents. During the same period in 2000, the number had dropped to 15. Officials attribute the lower number of accidents to the use of PatrolSim, a driving simulator. Until the addition of the simulator, all driving instruction was done in actual cars on courses or tracks. There was no way to practice driving in dangerous conditions without putting the driver or the vehicle in peril.

Driving simulators are becoming increasingly popular not only within police forces, but also in firefighter units and trucking companies.

The advent of smaller, faster computers has made driving simulation more realistic and cheaper, said Reg Welles, president of I-Sim Corporation based in Salt Lake City. The company makes simulators for commercial and military organizations. Driving simulators are an "emerging industry," he said in an interview. The industry so far has been dominated primarily by aviation. "If you look at how many airline pilots are in this country compared to how many drivers, you're talking millions [of] more drivers," said Welles. There are about 600 to 700 flight simulators in the United States for about 140,000 pilots. "So when you consider how many simulators are needed to handle millions of drivers, it's an ocean of opportunity.

"When we started, our systems were very expensive. We needed several computers to function in a parallel mode at the same time ... just to be able to handle the enormous amount of simulation equations." That drove the cost of the simulators to the millions of dollars.

"Basically, the technology is getting faster, cheaper and more comprehensive in performance. ... It's having embedded computer-based training; It's having embedded artificial intelligence that helps to guide the person using the simulator," said Welles As customer requirements grow, systems can be upgraded fairly easily, he noted.

In the driving simulations, particularly more attention is being paid to the physic behind the vehicle, said Welles. I-Sim, for example, works with the GoodYear Tire Company, in order to develop different tread designs and model the effects they have or vehicle performance. Welles believes that, too often, driving simulations are based on flight simulations or video games, and therefore an unsatisfactory for serious training.

"The customers are becoming more sophisticated. They are becoming more aware of what they really want in a simulator," Welles said. Law enforcement agencies are a case in point. The San Antonio Police Department acquired the PatrolSim in January 2000. Ernest Trevino, a department official explained, "We wanted our simulators a certain way. ... We videotaped the inside of one of our police cars. ... We wanted it to be real similar to that."

Because the simulators are capable of replicating a variety of tactical environments based on the vehicle, weather, traffic and road conditions, they are ideal for police training, said Trevino. And they are easy to use, he noted. "We're policemen. We're not computer experts or computer engineers. …