Covering the auto industry has its glamorous moments and its not-so-glamorous ones. Some days, we’re at the track, putting the new Lamborghini Aventador S through its paces. Some days, we’re talking to the design team behind the NSX supercar in our work for Acura. And others, we’re in a basement simulator, trying not to hit other (computer-generated) cars while driving through a (very real) rain shower.

The occasion was the launch of the DriverLab, a state-of-the-art virtual reality simulator and the latest addition to the Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory at Toronto Rehab’s iDAPT Labs.

Testing the driver—not the car

Unlike many other high-level simulators, it’s not intended for vehicle design research. Instead, it will measure how a driver’s condition affects their driving—how they cope, for example, with common driving situations when they’re tired or taking medication. In other words, today, it will be my performance under evaluation, not the car’s.

Instead of picking up the keys and driving off, I take the elevator down to the basement lab, housed in a huge, hangar-like space. One of the researchers swipes us in, and we walk down a jetway-style path to a yurt-shaped metal dome.

The Audi A3 inside has been given a bit of a makeover. It’s raised off the floor to about the height of an SUV, its hatchback is stuffed with computer equipment and there’s nothing under the hood. But when you climb inside, it feels like any other car—if you ignore the tiny cameras on the dashboard and the airsickness bags tucked into the driver’s side door.

On this ride, I’m accompanied by Dr. Geoff Fernie, the research institute director at Toronto Rehab. We fasten our seat belts, he asks a researcher outside to cue up a small-town scene, and the 360-degree projection system on the inside of the dome whirs to life.

Thanks to the six hydraulic legs, turntable and surround sound, it’s incredibly realistic. When I pull out onto a four-lane highway, cars passing in the left lane make our vehicle shake. In a night scene, headlights glare on the windshield and, during a storm, water actually spatters the car, requiring me to switch on the wipers. Throughout the drive, the dashboard cameras watch my eyes, keeping track of whether I’m looking at the road and checking my mirrors.

DriverLab Audi

On the road to something bigger

I’m just taking the simulator for a spin, but eventual research may involve having users drive at night for long periods of time to see how they react when sleepy, or asking participants to take a dose of medication and then cope with heavy traffic at the wheel of the A3. The researchers’ goals also include developing better ways of training and testing drivers, from teenagers just getting behind the wheel to the elderly, who may have no trouble running errands during the day but might start to have difficulty driving on highways at night.

Even though I haven’t ripped through corners or tested how fast the car goes from zero to 100 km/h (or, indeed, actually moved the car anywhere), I’m still exhilarated as I leave the lab. It’s always a rush to get to experience the latest technology.

Image credit: Chloe Tse