Now seriously woozy with jet lag, the virtual grand finale of the day was enough excitement to remain conscious. The shuttle dropped us in the parking lot of the building that housed Ford’s Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX); a 2011 Mustang came into focus. It looked fairly similar to the other 2010 stangs on the lot.. Except for an emblem near the front fender:
Inside, our group passed another snack/refreshment table outside of the room where the presentation was set to begin. I grabbed a banana and gave a guy dressed in catering attire a nod. The presentation room was actually a control room, with a wall composed mostly of glass that looked out over a giant white sphere with the Ford logo on it.
The ball sat atop hydraulics at least fifteen feet above the ground, making it roughly one story high and at eye level with the control room on the second story where we stood. A bridge, like the ones that connect airport gates to airplanes extended out to the ball. Our guide showed us the various controls and video monitors that made the VIRTTEX dance before taking us into its belly.
Inside its curved walls were fitted with video screens that wrapped around a full-size SUV. From the truck’s interior, only images of the highway and its surrounding environment were visible, providing a 360-degree view of the imaginary world. From the pamphlet:
“Ford’s VIRTTEX – Virtual Test Track Experiment – simulator is very much like a flight simulator. The pod that includes the screens and the simulated vehicle is positioned atop hydraulics that move it in various directions to simulate motion. With VIRTTEX, Ford designers and engineers can create an endless variety of driving conditions and experiences to safely test real situations drivers may face.”
Back in the control room, Ford’s speaker explained VIRTTEX’s first mission was on driver distractions, which led to the development of Ford Sync. Currently, it’s being used for blind spot/braking support research and the like. From the pamphlet:
“One simulation includes a test of lane departure warnings; mimics driver distractions; and can test a collision avoidance system using a close encounter with the back of a truck.”
I missed out on this simulation. The jet lag was really kicking my ass when Ford guy informed us there was only time for three volunteers to ride the ball. By the time my hand shot up the first press lady was already jumping out of her seat towards the entry bridge down the hall. Only, Ford guy didn’t inform her that they would be attempting to make her smash into the back of a semi truck. Multiple views of her face from the control room monitors were available for our viewing pleasure.
Seated in the driver’s seat with a Ford Spokesperson riding shotgun, press lady had no idea of the impending doom that awaited her as the bridge retracted and dropped away from the ball to the floor below.
A Ford guy wearing a headset in front of the control panel gave press lady the go ahead over the radio system to accelerate up to highway speeds. The ball began to dip and bob lazily side to side like a snake being danced to sleep by a charmer. It was graceful, floating, as if it were coasting down a highway itself (See new videos). My jet lag was mesmerized by it.
Bah! Don’t look into its eyes!
I chugged the last of my coffee and instead focused on Ford’s speaker in the control room who was explaining that the lady press driver was now being instructed to read off random numbers that were appearing in a display on her dashboard near the main gauges, which would draw her attention off the road. As she was doing so, one of the semi-trucks she was driving behind was going to slam on its brakes.
“Two, six, four, eight, twelve, uh, twenty-fo- ahhh!”
The giant ball swung hard to the left back across our field of view while rotating down towards the floor as the press lady slammed on her brakes and drove through the back of the semi. From the pamphlet:
“Tests of various warning systems with VIRTTEX helped Ford identify the critical difference between an effective alert and an annoying one that drivers are more likely to shut off.”
I’m not sure if there was any vehicle-generated warning given to the press lady, but the expression on her face through the monitors at the point of impact was priceless.
With the terrifying climax of the giant ball behind us, our group made our way out to the shuttle with the promise of a trip to Ford’s test track and the better portion of their 2011 lineup still to come. It smelled like 5.0 Mustang, Taurus SHO, Fiesta, EcoBoost Flex… and… Ford Transit Connect?