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The DriverLab at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute simulates daily driving, allowing researchers to assess the driving skills and habits of older adults and people with dementia, with the aim of helping them to keep their licences and independence longer.Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

Unbeknownst to most people bustling along one of Toronto’s busiest thoroughfares, four storeys below them lies a world of streets, highways and mountain roads, all found within the virtual reality of one of the most advanced driving simulators in the world. But while the driving may be fake, the results of studies conducted within its dome structure will have real-world implications for increased safety on our roads.

Located underneath the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute on University Avenue, the DriverLab simulator is part of the hospital’s CEAL program (Challenging Environment Assessment Lab) which simulates daily challenges faced by seniors and those with disabling injuries or illnesses. The program, which studies activities such as walking on snow and ice, climbing stairs and driving, is designed not just to collect data but also come up with solutions that will keep people safe and help prevent injuries.

The scientists at DriverLab have a few main areas of interest. They are studying the effects of various medications and dosages on driving. Theyʼre finding ways to detect and prevent drowsy driving. Theyʼre assessing the driving skills and habits of older adults and people with dementia, with the aim of helping them to keep their licences and independence longer. And theyʼre evaluating peopleʼs use of self-driving features and their perceptions of that technology.

“Simulators provide a useful technique to create a hybrid middle zone between a typical lab/clinical environment … and the real world,” says Jennifer Campos, senior scientist on the project.

The Audi A3 used in the DriverLab began life as a test vehicle for the automaker before being acquired by the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

DriverLab, which was built in 2017 at a cost of roughly $4-million, consists of a large dome that houses a real Audi A3. The dome incorporates a 360-degree film screen powered by a series of projectors that create an illusory world of city and country driving, on quiet streets and busy highways, at both day and night. The A3 is set on a pivoting turntable and, for added realism, the entire dome can be picked up by a crane and placed on a hydraulic table to mimic the effects of acceleration, braking and other driving forces.

What sets DriverLab apart from other simulators is the fact that it incorporates a real rain feature that can approximate a light rainfall or heavy rain, and a set of bright LED lights that shine in a driver’s face to simulate glare from oncoming traffic at night.

“[I] don’t know of any other driving simulator in the world that has those [features],” Campos says. “Most driving simulators of this fidelity are in the automobile sector, where their job is to optimize the vehicle; whereas our job is to optimize the driver.”

According to staff scientist Bruce Haycock, the experience within the simulator itself is meant to mimic real-world driving as much as possible. But even so, it can take about 10 minutes for a driver to become fully immersed in this computer-generated world.

“Try hard as you might to make it like the real world, the simple matter of fact is that it’s not," he says. “It’s always a little disconcerting when you start. That’s why we say to start off slow, drive gently.”

Inside DriverLab’s Audi A3, the mirrors are actually video screens, while infrared cameras track eye movement.Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

Current studies in the facility include a partnership with BrainFX Inc., an Ontario company, to look at using proprietary, iPad-style tablets to determine a driver’s intoxication with various drugs. Other projects look at how older drivers or drivers with dementia adapt to semi-autonomous driving situations in order to gauge their level of comfort with the technology.

“People should be excited about the potential of autonomous vehicles,” Campos says, “but we should know that under some circumstances they could be more dangerous than a human driver. So when we’re designing new systems, or making determinations from a policy perspective – licensing requirements, for example – then we have to start thinking now.”

The lab has partnered with entities such as the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Dementia Advocacy Canada, and Transport Canada, to name a few, on about a dozen studies.

“Most are ongoing; they take years to develop,” Campos says. “I wish we had more. We don’t have a lot simply because it’s so new. That’s just the nature of science. It takes a long time to get things up and running.”

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