Hometown U: UAA creates a virtual reality driving simulator for Alaska's challenging conditions

Kathleen McCoy
UAA photo by Ted Kincaid

You know the scenario: The first significant snowfall in October and everyone still wants to get to work on time. Last winter's black ice is a distant memory, erased by weeks and weeks of daylight, warm weather and ice-free pavement.

It's as if we forget everything we ever knew about safely maneuvering in the winter conditions typical for Alaska. Inevitably, highway medians and roadside ditches are littered with spinouts. We count them on our commute and report the number, proud not to be among them ... this time.

What if we could fix that? How would we fix that?

That's goal number one for Ghulam Bham, a UAA civil engineering professor originally from Karachi, Pakistan, who specializes in traffic.

He arrived at UAA in 2012 after earning his master's and doctorate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He's researched driver understanding of traffic signs and how much real-time message signs reporting traffic conditions ahead influence drivers. Ongoing research interests include traffic modeling and driver behavior. Alaska's road conditions offer him significant challenges.

Of course, Karachi, the world's third-largest city, with 23 million residents and a density of almost 16,000 people per square mile, is no piece of cake. Just imagine that traffic. Did it turn him into a traffic engineer?

"I don't even drive in Karachi -- there are no rules there!" he said, laughing, happier to negotiate the streets of Anchorage, which has a density of 171 people per square mile.

Instead, Bham's passion about driving comes from his childhood. "I used to play with cars as a kid, and I still do. Now I've taken it to the highest level -- the dynamics of traffic."

He plans to join a half dozen engineering and computer science students building a driving simulator from the ground up. He plans to have it up and running by the fall semester so students can better design an Alaska-specific highway.

"I would like to see how extreme parameters affect vehicle dynamics," Bham said. "Like, say, driving at high speed and then suddenly hitting a patch of black ice on a banked road." (Translation: Your morning commute next winter.)

The simulator will also be available for social science research, such as the effects of texting while driving or combating sleepiness at the wheel. Bham plans to partner with state and national agencies on research they need.

He and computer science professor Kenrick Mock won funding to build the simulator through UAA's Innovate fund, seed money for research that may lead to publications and patents.

Software and design work has been underway for six months, but just this week, the team got the actual car they'll remake into a simulator, a non-descript light turquoise 1996 four-door sedan donated by Continental Auto Group.

By Wednesday, the Ford was up on a rack at UAA's Automotive and Diesel Technology garage, a technical school where 45 students a year move through course work to become mechanics.

(Side note: Want job security? According to Kelly Smith, ADT's director, the average age of mechanics across the country is 53; employers are hungry for the next generation. "Our biggest problem is getting them to come back for year two," Smith said; most get hired right after their field practicum.)

Because UAA has a Community and Technical College, where the automotive-diesel program resides, alongside a College of Engineering, circumstances are ideal for savvy mechanics, electrical and mechanical engineering students and their professors to work side-by-side on the project.

But back to that turquoise Ford, where Josh Heppner, a senior in mechanical engineering, stared up at the car's underbelly beside longtime mechanic and ADT employee Shawn Heusser. Together, their mission was to pull the engine. They had to leave car systems intact enough so gas and brake pedals and the steering wheel could function convincingly, once software and screens projecting traffic scenarios are installed.

An off-the-shelf driving simulator costs $200,000. But building one from the ground up is cheaper (about $30,000) and way more fun. It offers special challenges. Heusser, the mechanic, was already pondering how to recreate tension in the gas pedal: "I'm thinking a hydraulic spring..."

I couldn't get over how much fun Heppner and Heusser were having together inside that engine compartment, or how valuable it is for a young engineering student who plans one day to design next-generation electric cars to be elbow-to-elbow with a mechanic under the hood of an old Ford.

Two examples: Smith and Heusser voiced the mechanics' frustration over working on engines designed by people who never have to fix them. "We need this one bolt right here," Kelly gestures, "and they've designed all this other stuff on top of it." Take heed, future car designer.

The other was practical. At the end of a long day of wrenching bolts and pulling wires, Heusser's and Heppner's hands were crusted with thick black grease.

"C'mere," the mechanic said to the engineering student. He grabbed a can of WD-40 and sprayed his own hands, then told Heppner to do the same.

"Now rub your hands together," he said. "This is the only way you'll ever get your hands clean." And he was right.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U