Driving simulators allow employees to experience a number of hazardous situations and different weather conditions in a short period of time, without the risk of suffering any injuries when things go wrong.
Until now fleets had two options: invest up to £200,000 buying their own simulator (e.g. Balfour Beatty) or spend £1,000-plus hiring a mobile simulator for a day.
Now there is a third option. Training and advice company Tadea opened the Effective Transport Solutions (ETS) centre in Sunderland last month.
It’s the largest multi-simulator facility in the UK and is home to six semi-immersive vehicle (pod) simulators and one fully-immersive simulator based within a converted Mini. Two more fully-immersive simulators will be installed by the end of September.
The centre hones drivers’ skills by putting them face-to-face with a range of driving scenarios. It also recreates different weather conditions.
ETS offers a number of training options:
¦ A full day’s training, covering five different subjects from fuel efficiency to distracted driving, which results in a level one award in effective driving techniques. It costs £590.
¦ A two-hour session focused on an individual topic (such as driving in adverse weather), which begins with an hour of classroom-based theory, followed by an hour-long simulator session to demonstrate the learnings from the theory. This can either be done in the pod simulator (costing £45) or the fully-immersive simulator (£150). There is a £20 charge for a level one certificate.
Discounts are possible for higher volumes of trainees and/or regular repeat bookings.
“We don’t try to replace on-the-road training,” says Gordon Pattie, manager at Effective Transport Solutions. “Simulator training is a tremendous add-on.”
However, he says that with on-the-road training “you get whatever the weather is that day”, while a simulator gives you the chance to experience all kinds of weather – fog, rain, low sunlight, snow, ice and crosswind buffeting.
When in the simulator, any participant in the training room can watch the action on screen – with a camera on the driver, as well as the view of the road ahead.
All trainers at the centre are fully-qualified, practicing approved driving instructors.
Putting simulators to the test
To begin, I tried a pod simulator on a winter road scenario.
It takes a while to get used to the driving experience and sensation the simulator gives. The set-up includes a proper steering wheel and seat, but other elements do feel a little like a video game.
I’m driving around New World, a simulated town created by XPI, the company behind the simulator technology.
It includes 56 miles of roads, encompassing towns, countryside, cities and shopping centres.
After a few minutes, I become used to the simulator and begin to feel the effect of the wintry weather on my driving.
As I reach the brow of a hill, I spot a large pool of water at the bottom. I wait for a car in the opposite direction to pass so I can avoid the water, but instructor Joe Kendall restarts the simulator and tells me to drive straight through it.
On this attempt, I can appreciate his instructions – you get a real feeling of driving through water and can understand how speed and road position affect vehicle handling.
Ending my time on the pod simulator, I experience a crash on a single carriageway road, deliberately losing control of the vehicle. Although I’m not physically moving, my brain tells me otherwise – a sign that the simulator is doing its job.
The fully-immersive simulator is impressive. Its multiple projectors on a curved wall create a simulation that feels real. A large monitor behind the rear window of this converted Mini provides a view behind you, while digital door mirrors add to the realism. The graphics on the screens are slightly square, but in no way does it detract from the experience – you definitely feel like you’re driving a car.
Experience starts with a bump
Settle into the driving seat and the sense of realism continues. The car has to be started using the ignition key and all a car’s usual controls are fully functioning, although the simulator staff do have the option of switching to automatic mode, rendering the gearstick redundant.
In this instance, though, the car is in manual mode, and my experience begins with a bump as it takes me a couple of minutes to get used to the feel of the controls.
The weather has been set to rain and one of the key points from Michael Nugent, my instructor for this simulation, is to look as far ahead as possible for hazards. The ‘sat-nav’ voice in the car is giving me directions around a route with hazards such as junctions, parked cars and pedestrians.
Pattie says: “The simulators are set up to slightly exaggerate some controls, but it helps the driver to focus. We’ve found different levels of engagement and ability so far.
“Younger people seem to get on better. We have had a couple of people with motion sickness, but not many.”
The simulator switches to a foggy scenario. I drive for around half-a-mile before my instructor prompts me to turn on the lights. As I head out of town into the countryside, I build up speed, and then begin to encounter obstacles such as a broken-down car, for which I have to slow down.
The final scenario is icy conditions. This stage is mostly around town and I get audible feedback as I skid around a corner, with Nugent telling me how to take better control of braking and acceleration as I approach the next junction.
It’s definitely a reactive approach and doesn’t feel like a driving lesson.
Nugent says: “One of the main advantages is the ability to reset the simulator and experience an identical situation again. If a driver crashes or performs a dangerous manoeuvre, it becomes easy to start again and, with guidance, try again.
“Even if on the road you were to turn around and visit the same location, you couldn’t replicate the environment.”
Pattie adds: “The simulator isn’t just working on the drivers’ reactions. Some of the other ‘virtual’ traffic has artificial intelligence that can react to your driving.”
Mobile simulator options
If travelling to the north-east to attend the ETS centre is not practical, fleets can hire a mobile simulator for a day.
TIR Training Services in Yorkshire has two mobile simulator units that can be transported to clients’ sites. It has seen growing interest from fleets.
TIR training officer Andy Rashbrooke says: “An energy company took a batch of staff through adverse weather training with us as they had issues with staffing in winter. Very few staff were making it into work in snowy conditions, so the training was designed to combat that.”
He adds: “When we started, companies would tend to put all their drivers through the training. Now they’re starting to become more targeted, and focus on ‘at risk’ drivers.
“We’ve started offering winter driving training for automatic vehicles, as vehicle control is quite different in an automatic in snow. Although you don’t feel the momentum, you can still feel a skid or loss of traction through steering and lack of response.
“Some insurance companies are also reducing premiums for businesses who have put staff through simulator training.
“It’s fantastic to offer all four seasons in five minutes.”
The Fleet News view
Simulators are an ideal environment in which to practice driving skills that might be dangerous on the road. You get to see the full extent of making the wrong decision, and the results can be a shock.
This type of training might not replace more traditional on-the-road training, but for certain types of driver, such as those that are proving resistent to changing their current behaviours, it would be a huge benefit – for them and your business.