In the law enforcement training matrix, EVOC remains perhaps the most difficult curriculum to develop and implement correctly. It isn t because the principles of driver training or the physics of vehicles have changed that much. It isn t because there aren t resources available for vehicles, or that the required technology is supremely exotic or expensive. In actuality, the biggest challenges in EVOC training are finding a location big enough to conduct exercises, having the money to buy the land and build a track, and finding enough instructors to conduct the classes.
Land is at a premium in most places in the country, and most agency budgets are tighter than ever. In many cases, the generosity of airports, shopping centers and places with free parking lots proves crucial to getting any training done at all. Unfortunately, these lots were never designed to support driver training, so often well-intentioned EVOC lesson plans are stripped to the bare minimums to accommodate the ill-suited parameters of the driving surface. Because of this, smart agencies look at other options for EVOC training hoping to find something to supplant the limited real-world training available.
Last month I discussed the advantages of the Skid Car driver-training system. This month I will look at the driving simulator.
In the area of driver training, perhaps nothing has generated more controversy than the role of the computerized driving simulator. On one hand, advocates say simulators can create any kind of driving situation imaginable, and that students can be analyzed in great detail on their decision-making skills, adherence to department policies and overall driving tactics in pursuit situations. On the other hand, detractors say simulators don t offer real-world physics, real-time feedback or realistic visibility of the view through the windows, and don t teach any real car-control skills. Both camps are firmly entrenched in their viewpoints, and agencies are in the middle, trying to figure out how to properly train their officers.
In order to find out how well simulators address EVOC training needs, I traveled to the Regional Public Safety Training Center (RPSTC) in Reno, Nev., to meet with its director, Greg Befort. Located on 120 acres and operating since 2002, the center is a collaborative effort between the Truckee Meadows Community College District and regional police and fire agencies. It s considered state-of-the-art in using technology to train police and fire personnel. Befort has worked with the center for several years, and he and his staff have worked hard to incorporate technology into the training environment.
The facility has a dedicated driving track for behind-the-wheel EVOC training, but it also has a driving simulator called the PatrolSim III. The simulator, developed by General Electric in partnership with L3 Technologies through its MRPI division, is a recent addition to the center s driver-training curriculum.
It s important to point out that L3 has recently introduced the PatrolSim IV, which is the next step in its electronic driving simulator evolution. However, because this article is intended to address the overall value of driving simulators in EVOC, the PatrolSim III was an excellent example of a cutting-edge, virtual driving experience.
What It Is
The RPSTC has a room dedicated to the PatrolSim III. In it, the simulator itself rests in one corner of the room, while an operator s station called the OPT CON resides alongside. The OPT CON is where the instructor operates the system. It consists of a desktop computer and monitor, a microphone that allows the instructor to talk to the student through optional headphones during scenarios and a small steering wheel with adjacent foot pedals. This wheel-and-pedal setup allows the instructor to drive any vehicle on-screen during a scenario and provides interactive options. It could be the rabbit vehicle, or a motorist repeatedly getting in the way of the police or fire vehicle.
The computer display allows up to four simulators to operate simultaneously during an exercise. Given enough space, you could place four simulators side-by-side and use them for pursuit exercises in which officers come from many different directions. Such a setup would allow instructors to evaluate a trainee s pursuit strategies and decision-making processes. RPSTC has one simulator, which is understandable due to the $110,000 cost (approximately) for a single system. That may seem like a lot at first glance, but when you consider that paving a road costs about $1 million a mile, not including land, cars, instructors, etc., it ends up being reasonable if the system can deliver.
The Patrol Sim III itself consists of a life-size driver s seat with a seatbelt and a dash straight out of a Crown Victoria, complete with working ventilation systems, turn signals, a transmission lever and other features. There is a functional siren box mounted in a conventional center console to the right of the driver s seat, and three screens provide a 180-degree view, roughly. (Befort says a panoramic view option can be activated with steering-wheel buttons, providing students better peripheral vision during exercises.) Two buttons normally used for cruise control on a real Crown Victoria toggle to the left or right for panoramic views. (L3 s new PatrolSim IV offers a 210-degree view to allow for more natural visibility.)
The system can create almost every driving scenario possible. Pursuits, fire emergencies, day-to-day driving and other scenarios exist in a vast databank of options. Want rain? Check. Want a lot of rain? Check. Darkness? Snow? Ice? Heavy traffic? City streets? Country road? Check. Instructors can program any type or degree of weather condition they feel students will encounter on the street.
Befort says one of the best things about the system is that every part of the scenario can be controlled, from the duration to the type of vehicle used. In fact, because the RPSTC trains fire personnel, the simulator has fire trucks and ambulances as an option. Load a fire truck up, and the steering, visibility, sounds, braking and acceleration all take on the characteristics of a big, lumbering fire rig. The system can also provide dump trucks, delivery vans, SWAT trucks and many other virtual vehicles.
Befort says another advantage of the simulator is that the system can provide scenarios that simply aren t possible to create on a track. Also, instructors can review every second of the scenario with a student to assess strong and weak points in decision making, pursuit management, policy adherence, etc. And because the scenarios are not affected by real weather, traffic conditions, track size, etc., instructors can repeat the same scenarios with each student for consistency. The system also allows instructors to create scenarios from scratch, tailoring the program to departmental needs.
After I completed a few scenarios, Befort replayed them on the instructor s desktop, as well as on the simulator s screens. Multiple angles can be reviewed, and each can be analyzed on a second-by-second basis, if needed. So, in terms of the ability to clinically analyze student performances in situations such as pursuits and other emergency response calls, the system works well. It also allows data storage of all scenarios completed by an officer and keeps an accurate training log of their performance.
As for other advantages, Befort says the system also works well in other training areas. Example: Cadets will engage in a pursuit scenario on the PatrolSim III, then engage in a real foot pursuit at its conclusion, which requires them to run a distance before entering the defensive tactics room. There, they engage an instructor in a defensive tactics suit, who acts as an adversary they must take into custody. Although many of these things could be done with a real car, having the simulator allows consistency, less wear on academy vehicles and independence from weather conditions. So, for student analysis, scenario repeatability and vehicle variety, a simulator like the PatrolSim III provides some notable benefits.
As with all technologies intended to replace real-world experiences, the driving simulator also has some negatives. According to Befort, one of its biggest limitations is the lack of physical forces acting upon the driver. Things such as G-force, yaw, pitch, roll, braking force and other physical properties normally present in EVOC driving don t exist. This means the simulator doesn t function well in terms of teaching actual car-control skills. It also means there is a pronounced disconnect between what the student sees and what their brain tells them is happening. This disparity can lead to what Befort terms Simulator Awareness Syndrome (SAS). SAS occurs when the inner ear gets so confused by the disparity between the action on the screen and the lack of physical forces, it causes nausea. Befort says proper instructor training is crucial to minimize these effects because students must be gradually introduced into the sensations provided by the virtual experience.
Interestingly, Befort says overhead fluorescent lighting in most classrooms emit a refresh frequency that is subconsciously noted by the brain. This can interfere with the brain s ability to process the refresh rate on the simulator screen, which can lead to nausea. Because of this, instructors turn off the classroom lights during scenario training. Befort estimates that roughly 20 percent of students get SAS when driving the simulator, but adds that some students also get motion sickness during real-world EVOC driving.
As an EVOC instructor for 17 years, this was my first experience with an advanced virtual simulation developed directly for law enforcement training. I had the opportunity to test the PatrolSim III under a variety of conditions, including normal driving on freeways and streets, pursuits in rainy, foggy, snowy and icy conditions, and even a PIT situation. As I drove, I asked Befort to adjust the feel of my virtual vehicle by manipulating the brake pressure, steering feel and road adhesion. I also sampled the simulator, using a virtual fire truck as my vehicle. I then finished by completing virtual examples of normal real-world EVOC exercises, such as the perception-reaction and threshold braking.
I came away with some very clear impressions. On the plus side, as a decision-making tool, the simulator can be an excellent option. It provides numerous scenarios for testing students on their awareness skills, mental acuity under stress and proper driving decisions. It also provides a clinical environment for a precise review of these decisions. Scenarios aren t affected by outside weather, vehicle condition, lot size, etc., and the graphic quality is high.
On the other hand, the simulator offers little practical value for teaching tactile driving skills. Despite the ability to adjust the virtual vehicle s feel, the lack of physical feedback means the correlation between driver input and vehicle response feels non-linear. It just doesn t feel real. Steering feedback doesn t equate to where the front tires are pointed. Braking force doesn t correlate to actual braking performance, and the absence of G-force means there is no way to sense what the vehicle is doing during cornering maneuvers. Example: When conducting a perception-reaction exercise, a driver s inputs can be very quick. The virtual system didn t seem to be able to keep up, which made it feel clumsy. Also, the lack of body roll, rear wheel cheat and tire slip angle, combined with feeling completely disconnected from the physics of the exercise, made for a very weird experience.
So, the simulator isn t up to the task of improving car control skills. But given its strengths in other areas, perhaps that s not what it was designed for anyway.
Befort points out that the driving simulator is not designed to replace behind-the-wheel teaching. It s a supplementary tool for evaluating student decision-making processes. In this, I am in agreement. I also believe systems like the Patrol Sim III and others should not be looked at as an EVOC training tool in the driver-training sense. They should be looked at as a risk-management tool that uses a vehicular environment as its platform. Agencies that expect to use a simulator to teach their officers to be skilled drivers will be disappointed. But, if they use it instead to evaluate mental performance during stressful situations, it will provide a much more tangible benefit.