A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2009

In May 2005, two days before the elections, M and I went from Damascus to Beirut for a weekend getaway. A was having a joint birthday party in Beirut that Saturday night, and we thought that an excursion “abroad” would be a fun change from our usual Damascene weekend pursuits.

We had a hoot of a time – not only at the party, but in general. And we caused most of our own hilarity – particularly during the share-taxi rides to and from Beirut.

Oh, look at that beautiful mosque, I said as we passed one especially lovely mountain town heading from Masnaa toward Beirut.

Oh yes, M said, frowning and then nodding sagely. She had spent the previous three years in Damascus, so her sense of sectarian architecture was much finer than mine. That’s a beautiful Christian mosque, diamond.

As our return taxi wheezed its banana-boat way up towards Aley, M told me an “urban legend” story that she had heard from equally science-minded friends.

Someone at the American University of Beirut got a grant, she said, to study traffic patterns in Beirut and to suggest ways to improve congestion. (The conversation was sparked, of course, by the many mini-traffic jams we encountered on our way toward the border.) He or she also got access to an incredible new software program, designed to model traffic patterns and analyze them – a program that U.S. municipalities use when trying to improve their own traffic issues.

What did the program say about Beirut? I asked, in between bouts of car sickness induced by our stop-and-go drive.

Well, M said, the team plugged in all the numbers: the maps of the city’s streets, the number of cars on the road, the traffic signals, the parking lots – all the data they would input for any city. And when they ran the software program, the program said: impossible. This many cars cannot possible operate on the streets of Beirut.

What do you mean? I asked. M is the scientist, not me.

The program insisted that there was an error in the data, M explained. It wouldn’t analyze Beirut’s traffic, because it insisted that the number of cars that drive the city each day is impossibly high.

And, by American standards, I am sure that the software program was right. It probably assumed things like lanes, parking spots, and obedience to traffic signals – all of which would no doubt decrease the number of cars that could feasibly fit on Beirut’s streets. But this is reality – and it does work.

I thought of M’s story yesterday, when I came across this press release, about another new AUB research project:

The Transport Research Unit (TRU) within the Department of Civil Engineering of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has just received the region’s most advanced automobile driving simulator, DriveSafety’s DS-600. It will allow researchers to investigate a wide range of topics spanning the domains of traffic engineering, road safety, as well as driver behavior and cognition.

“This is a significant new addition to the Department of Civil Engineering’s research infrastructure,” Salah Sadek, department chairman noted as he observed the final tests being conducted on the simulator. “This simulator will enable the relationship between the driver and the vehicle to be thoroughly investigated, and opens up the possibility for investigating a wide range of research topics as well as providing opportunities for numerous inter-departmental final year projects.”

(You can read the rest of the DriveSafety press release here.)

I’m sure that the simulator will be a great help in the University’s research projects – but I’m not sure that those research projects will have any applicability in Lebanon. I’m guessing that the “DriveSafety” simulator simulates American driving experiences, not Lebanese ones – and probably leaves out some of those, like the joys of encountering black ice on a “rural route” in Iowa, or running into a felled tree on the highway between Seattle and Portland.

How will the civil engineers of AUB compensate for the simulator’s tendency to insist on lane discipline?

How will they compensate for the simulator’s insistence that one should not drive on the shoulder of a mountain road?

How will they account for the driver’s desire to put on his/her hazard lights in foggy weather?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the first simulations, and I would love to see how the DriveSafety employees like their experiences on the roads of real-life Beirut!

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4 Responses to “unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB”

  1. adsabry said

    I’m one of the Arab bloggers trying to defend arab women rights,& trying to

    extend our community with arabs from around the world
    if u interested u can visit kolenalaila
    or contact me

  2. Kheireddine said

    LOL! Beirut is chaos on Earth, it was already hell in the 80’s with road blocs, divided city, triple parking, Syrian checkpoints that my father stopped driving and started walking by 1982.

  3. Jeff Hayes said

    adiamondinsunlight, your comments are very appropriate. A colleague and I spend the the third week in January at AUB installing their driving simulator. The people there were (and are) great. They knew that the system was designed for more western driving experiences but there are enough items in the virtual library for them to create drives that are closer to driving in Beirut and Lebanon.

    Having spent a week in central Beirut and a day hiring a taxi for some tourism in Beirut and an hour or so north, we experienced first hand the Lebanese driving. We were glad we made sure the horn worked and wondered why anyone bothered painting pavement markings. But after it is all said and done, the people of Lebanon seem to make it work.

    The driving simulation system can or cannot keep track of lane position, a programmable option. If one elects to drive on the shoulder, they certainly can; and they can see for themselves what can happen in certain conditions. The driving simulator can be used to instruct, not just study, if they so desired. If they want foggy or snowy conditions, the simulator allows for this. There are programming options for the driver’s view as well as for the road surface friction.

    We have been at this for 13+ years, specifically in the driving research space. There will certainly be situations that will not match the Lebanese driving environment. I will image over time, that new road types, cultural icons, signs, etc. that are unique to Lebanon and Beirut will be added.

    See http://www.youtube.com/user/drivesafety for some videos including one I took while at AUB.

    Thanks for the write-up.

  4. Adsabry, I am not Arab, but thank you for your visit and your comment.

    Kheireddine, your poor father! The checkpoints would make driving unpleasant. I don’t think that Lebanon today is chaos – its just a different system than we have in North America.

    Jeff, thank you very much for your comment – I learned a lot, and I am grateful to you because I was very curious to know more! The driving simulation system does sound flexible enough to give Lebanon-appropriate results – I look forward to hearing more about AUB’s research at some point. And I am so glad that you and your colleague enjoyed your time in Beirut!

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