Virtual Reality Driving

A driver’s education student will sit in a chair in a classroom, and strap on a head set complete with a vision field and headphones. With the set-up comes a realistic steering wheel, which vibrates according to what is happening in the virtual reality stimulator.

Learning how to drive just got a little more exciting at Columbia River Driver Education, a St. Helens based company.

The company has received two fully immersive virtual reality simulators to aid in its training. At the beginning of this year, the company received authorization from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to use VR training in Driver’s Education, and, according to Greene, the company is the only driver’s education provider in the state authorized to do so.

According to the company owner Rich Greene, the training allows a driver’s education student to sit in a chair in a classroom, and strap on a head set complete with a vision field and headphones. With the set-up comes a realistic steering wheel, which vibrates according to what is happening in the virtual reality stimulator.

The entire set up is hooked up with wires to the teacher’s computer, which is in charge of controlling the simulation. The student will then be subjected to all sorts of scenarios that they could face in real life.

Greene said numerous advantages set the system apart from regular driving in a real car, which is also part of Columbia River Driver Education. One is failure in a safe environment. Also, the entire session is recorded, so students can go back and see their mistakes. A third benefit is that students can more easily access all types of driving situations.

“We realized that it’s difficult for us to put the students we have out here in Columbia County on every road configuration that they may experience as they’re driving," Greene said. "And so this allows us to expose them to those kinds of situations."

One of those situations is driving on the freeway. In order for a St. Helens resident to reach a freeway, such as U.S. 26, it requires a drive of about 45 minutes, impossible to do during a standard 90-minute driver’s education lesson. With the virtual reality simulator, doing so is simple: It requires strapping on a headset and loading the program from the computer.

There are two main courses that a driver’s education student will face in the virtual reality simulator. One is called “highway solo,” and the other is “Car control.”

The first is designed to test how well a student handles different situations on the freeway, which the instructor can choose to make increasingly difficult as the student progresses. At first, the student will drive on an empty freeway, with the goal to simply obey the speed limit and keep control of the car as they enter and exit via on- and off-ramps. Then, the instructor can amp up the difficulty, adding traffic, and then making the student pass at least three cars before the session is over, Greene said.

“Car control” works differently, and tests students on how well they can quickly maneuver a vehicle around various obstructions, as well as how quickly they can come to a complete stop.

The control simulator is also capable of simulating various motor vehicles, not just the traditional four-door sedan, which Greene said is useful, seeing as how commonplace large pickup trucks are for St. Helens residents. On top of that, the simulator can alter different aspects of the tests, like making the weather cloudy or sunny, or increasing traffic. Occasionally, Greene or his wife will also do a Stroop Color and Word Test (SCWT) which tests students for distraction.

The SCWT works like this: During a driving simulation, an instructor will flash a word in a certain color on the screen, which will appear in a four-second burst. They will then have the student repeat the color of the word to the instructor. Among their more experienced drivers especially, Greene said the students will report how distracting the SCWT was.

Showing them the recording of their test afterward will doubly enforce this concept.

“The reaction we’ll have from those experienced drivers is, ‘oh, I weaved out of my lane when I was looking at that,’ or ‘I missed a stop sign when I was looking at that,’” Greene said, “And we’ll tell them, ‘that’s the same kind of thing that happens when you’re driving, if you decide to pick up your cell phone and look at it.’”

While the company received full authorization for the VR system earlier this year, Columbia River Driver Education has been using the system since December. They’ve used the system in Rainier, but this class in St. Helens is the first class where the system has been fully integrated since the beginning.

The St. Helens model is what Greene and his wife will pattern the rest of their classes on. It includes 40 hours of classroom training, and then two to three weeks of driving training afterward, which the virtual reality stimulator is part of.

County-wide, Greene said his company will do two to three classes a year in North Columbia County, five to six classes per year in St. Helens, and then hopefully expand to Vernonia, where they will do one to two classes per year.

For teens, class packages start at $400, and for adults, class packages start at $610, and include 30 hours of classroom training and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

To register for classes, visit https://www.columbiariverdrivereducation.com/ or contact the company at 503-928-8247.

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