The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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UMass Engineers Garner Outstanding Paper Award from Transportation Research Board

outstanding paper awardees and Transportation Research Board members

Researchers from the UMass College of Engineering and the University of Waterloo in Canada won the outstanding paper award at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on January 15. The winning paper describes their research into virtual-reality headsets to simulate and measure drivers’ hazard-anticipation performance. As the authors say, such research is desirable because virtual headsets are “several orders of magnitude less expensive” than other simulators and “could greatly extend the powers of simulation.

The authors of the TRB outstanding paper were UMass Emeritus Professor Donald Fisher of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, Professor Siby Samuel (formerly of UMass) from the University of Waterloo, Professor Michael Knodler of the UMass Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department, and MIE graduate students Yalda Ebadi and Ganesh Pai Mangalore. The paper was also part of Pai Mangalore’s thesis work.

TRB is a program unit of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a non-profit organization that provides independent, objective, and interdisciplinary solutions. Among other activities, TRB manages transportation research by producing publications and online resources, and it convenes experts that help to develop solutions to problems and issues facing transportation professionals.  

“Over the years, driving simulators have been extensively used for various transportation, human factors, and behavioral studies,” say the authors of the winning paper in explaining the background of their research. “Their increased level of safety and ability to simulate real-world scenarios with a high sense of immersion have made them useful tools for studying drivers’ behavior and performance in low- and high-risk scenarios, to evaluate alternative in-vehicle interface designs, and to develop and evaluate training programs.” 

The authors add that “The realism in these virtual environments is particularly useful as the simulator tests can be used as a precursor to open-road evaluations, thereby minimizing research expenditures and increasing the level of safety.”

Virtual-reality headsets are now adding a useful tool to this body of driving simulators. As the abstract of the winning paper explains, “Out of several possible measures of performance that could be considered for evaluating virtual-reality headsets, the current study specifically examines drivers’ latent hazard-anticipation behavior both because it has been linked to crashes and because it has been shown to be significantly poorer in young drivers compared to their experienced counterparts in traditional driving simulators and in open road studies.”

In this research study, 48 participants were equally and randomly assigned to one out of four experimental conditions. Two young driver cohorts (18 – 21 years) and two middle-aged driver cohorts (30 – 55 years) navigated either a fixed-based driving simulator or a virtual-reality-headset-based simulator. All participants navigated six unique scenarios while their eyes were continually tracked.

The results produce a reliable correspondence between test results for virtual-reality headsets and those for standard, more traditional simulators, thus providing a very dependable comparison for evaluating the headsets.

“The proportion of latent hazards anticipated by participants which constituted the primary dependent measure was found to be greater for middle-aged drivers than young drivers across both platforms,” as the paper abstract reports. “The difference in the magnitude of performance between the young and middle-aged drivers was similar across the two platforms.”

Because of the similarity between results for traditional simulators and the simulation headsets, the authors conclude that “The study provides some justification for the use of virtual-reality headsets as a way of understanding drivers’ hazard-anticipation behavior.”

The TRB outstanding paper was based on research carried out collaboratively by MIE’s Human Performance Laboratory, which conducts various driving-simulation-based research on driver behavior, driver performance, and other human-factors-based research, and the UMass Transportation Center in the CEE department, which carries out numerous transportation-based research projects. (February 2019)

Pictured in image (left to right):

Omar Ahmad, David Hurwitz, Donald Fisher, Ganesh Pai Mangalore, Yalda Ebadi, Siby Samuel