But the way the simulator told the driver what was going on was quite different from the sensation of a real car. “Once you’ve learned what each movement and feedback means, you start to get it,” Goodwin said.
I sense that, in the simulated world, much of the eight years since have been spent reducing the difference. The key to a great ‘driver in the loop’ (as in, a person is using it) simulation is that it feels like the real thing. And while the physics get more accurate still, and more advanced software lets engineers model ever more factors, the best sims are ones that make you feel like you’re actually there.
And herein lies the problem. The earliest simulator that I, and perhaps you, saw was for aeroplanes. It was on The Krypton Factor (ask your parents) and it was in a pod, as flight simulators often still are. They sit on a ‘hexapod’, an arrangement of rams that gives plenty of degrees of movement, but, usually hydraulically powered, they’re slow to respond and, other than giving you an angle of lean, can’t maintain a g-force.
Which is fine for an airliner, because if you’re sustaining a big g, things probably aren’t going well. But imagine trying to replicate the g-forces of a car going through a fast corner. Take Monza: you’d need a pod travelling on rails and, while they do exist – usually for truck simulators – to sustain a big g-force, a simulator would have to be on rails that are, well, the size of Monza. Which isn’t helpful. Besides, if you’re in a pod, you rule out easily changing the actual cockpit – and, increasingly, car makers like to sit drivers in simulators that have a realistic environment so they can test ergonomics.
So they want a simulator that can fit inside a room, in which one cockpit can be craned off and another dropped on, and which yet feels like it’s moving, without making the driver feel sick – a big problem with early simulators.
Those are the challenges. I’ve been to a couple of places that think they’re at the cutting edge of the answer, and both are in the UK.
Cranfield Simulation began making flight simulators for fighter jets and had to solve an issue: how do you make fighter pilots feel like they’re pulling big forces for anything up to minutes at a time? A pilot’s own equipment sparked the answer: in flight, they put on a g-suit, which inflates to stop them passing out. Inflate the suit, then, or in a car the chair or seatbelts, in the right places at the right times and you trick the mind into thinking that acceleration is matching what you see on screen. Hard right cornering? Inflate the left of the seat. Hard braking? Pull the seatbelts hard.