Imagine a world where a customized license gives your elderly mother the freedom to drive during the day, but not at night. Where you don't need to worry about the hazard she may be posing to herself – or others – on the road, while she maintains the independence that matters so much to her.
Where your brother, who suffers from chronic pain, can take a prescribed dose of medication that has been proven to be safe while driving, without interfering with performance.
Where you, exhausted after years of sleep apnea, won't risk nodding off in your car, because it can actually sense, and warn you, of your drowsiness.
Where we all benefit from the assistance that driverless vehicles can offer.
Researchers at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute are accelerating our efforts to get there, with the launch of DriverLab – the most advanced driving simulator in Canada, and unique in the world.
DriverLab is designed to study the impact of our health on driving performance, with an aim to increase driver safety in healthy older adults and people living with injury or illness.
The technology comes at a time when vehicle collisions represent the number-one cause of accidental death in Canada, and cost Canadians $62.7 billion per year.
Global numbers are equally staggering: Every year, 1.24 million people around the world die in motor vehicle collisions and up to 50 million people suffer from disabling injuries.
Older adults are far too often involved in these statistics.
DriverLab's Main Goals
Almost everyone has a parent or grandparent they've had to take the car keys away from, says Dr. Geoff Fernie, Research Institute Director, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. And the impact can be devastating.
"Some people say this loss of independence is the worst thing that has happened in their lives – worse than their spouse dying," he says.
But what if we didn't have to take the keys away completely? What if we could offer customized licenses, with restrictions on the time of day, distance, and weather conditions, in which older adults could get behind the wheel?
"In 10 to 20 years, several things will happen because of results coming out of DriverLab," Dr. Fernie says.
For example, he's hoping to see mini versions of the simulator in testing centres across Ontario, or even Canada, to support the assessment of aging drivers.
His team also expects to have guidelines for physicians in the prescription of various drugs, including opioids, based on their understanding of safe dosages while driving.
"We need to know if these medications are affecting people's ability to drive safely," Dr. Andrea Furlan, Senior Scientist, says. "DriverLab will help us see how patients respond to challenging situations, with and without opioids in their systems."
Another main objective is to guide the vehicle and software industries, as they develop the driverless cars of the future – cars that are expected to play a large role in the lives of seniors.
"Unless we understand what the impact may be, how these things should be designed, and how seniors are going to accept them, we're not going to come up with anything that's going to be useful," says Dr. Alex Mihailidis, Scientific Director of AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE), a national research network focused on technology and aging. "We're going to use DriverLab to explore the attitudes and preferences of seniors, toward the use of autonomous vehicles."
The team also hopes to make strides in solving the problem of people falling asleep at the wheel, by building systems that detect and divert drowsy driving.
What makes DriverLab different?
DriverLab contains a full Audi A3 and immerses drivers in customizable virtual environments, complete with surround sound. It's the only simulator in Canada that incorporates a 360-degree projection system and 7-degrees-of-freedom motion system, consisting of six hydraulic legs and a turntable.
One-of-a-kind features that put DriverLab ahead of every other simulator in the world include a weather simulator that produces real rain droplets on the windshield, and a glare simulator that recreates the harsh glare of oncoming headlights.
High-resolution virtual scenery takes drivers into the city, country, and on the highway, during the day and at night.
"Most driving simulators in the world are developed to improve the design of cars. Ours is developed to study drivers. It has special features that no one else would worry about," explains Dr. Fernie.
"For example, as we age, a real concern is driving at night in the rain. Other simulators offer a video experience that is not convincing at all. Here, it actually rains on the windshield."
Building on excellence
DriverLab uses existing technology in Toronto Rehab's massive, underground Challenging Environment Assessment Lab (CEAL), making it a cost-effective undertaking. It shares resources, such as a motion base and control room, with the lab's three existing simulators: StairLab, WinterLab, and StreetLab
It also shares a common research theme. "We have a real concern with mobility around here," Dr. Fernie says. "If you can't get safely up the stairs, if you can't walk safely across the street, if you can't take your car out to go to the grocery store, life is pretty crummy."
"We have a comprehensive program at Toronto Rehab, to help you maintain safe mobility. We don't want you to get hit by a car. We don't want you to hit someone in your car. It all fits together with a focus on mobility."
DriverLab is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Government of Ontario, and Toronto Rehab Foundation, and developed with the assistance of International Development of Technology (IDT) BV, The Netherlands.