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Risk—free driving: simulators

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The policeman takes the bend fast and fishtails on the slick road but wrenches his car back under control. He slams on the brakes, bringing the Crown Victoria to a quick stop, steps out and saunters down the hall to get a soda.

Welcome to GE Capital I-Sim, 2961 W. California Ave., where "it's a lot of fun to experience adverse driving conditions in a risk-free environment," according to chief executive officer Mark Stulga. "And it allows you to anticipate and prevent serious injury" when the situation is real.

The company, headquartered in Salt Lake City, offers drivers a chance to tweak their skills on simulators. As one of six new Driver Development Service Centers that is holding a grand opening Thursday, it gives truckers, firefighters, police officers, fleet drivers and anyone else who can afford it a chance to hone their driving skills and reclaim, in a classroom setting, good habits that might have slipped away over time.

Even good drivers, Stulga said, get sloppy.

The company says the "road to safe driving has taken a digital turn for the better."

The secret is the technology of I-Sim, short for intelligent simulation, which is at the heart of a three-part training approach, said Justin Boyle, general manager of driver development services for the company. Clients receive classroom instruction, computer-based training with a driver skills evaluation and then time in the simulator — all in a two-hour class format.

Skills-honing classes like their's have proven popular, especially with law enforcement and the trucking industry.

The simulators vary depending on what occupation needs them. In one area, four police officers at a time can train on PatrolSims, which simulate not only police cars but also have an area for a dispatcher so that drivers can work through scenarios interactively.

Truckers can learn basic gear shifting and fuel economy on a TranSim V, which has an actual transmission made by Eaton. Or drivers can go to the Mark II simulator, which is a full-size, fully operational truck cab placed in a three-dimensional scene. It is, by the way, disorienting to see a truck cab driving up the road without a truck bed and wheels. But inside the cab, from the driver's viewpoint, the experience feels very real.

And that's the whole point.

Stulga said the company developed its technology from technology pioneered in the military and aviation industry.

"Simulation was very expensive until the advent of high-speed processors," he said. "The military has been involved in vehicle simulation for years."

Because the technology is now affordable, he said, simulators can train people on "virtually every type of vehicle on the road: police cars, waste haulers, fire engines and more."

The point is to upgrade skills. Most people have no formal skill-upgrading sessions after they graduate from driver's education. And Boyle adds that even the most intelligent, experienced drivers slip into lousy habits.

Stulga won't talk about the price of the simulator training, but he said it is "not more costly than a couple of fill-ups for a big rig," and the benefits derived — in experience, defensive driving skills and safety awareness — save companies a lot of money.

It's not a program for just anyone who'd like to check out a simulator. Instead, the program is geared to transport companies, municipalities that have driving fleets, emergency vehicles and others. GE Capital I-Sim is also looking at whether it would make sense to design a program for driver-education classes in high schools, but that jury's still out, Stulga said.

The instructors are generally certified trainers and curriculum is proprietary. Though the centers are new, the course and the technology have been sold and "generally, clients who've taken it leave with more confidence and fresh skills," he said.

Other centers (Salt Lake City's is the smallest) that also are opening Thursday are in Anaheim, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Philadelphia, with six more opening in a few months nationally.

More information about GE Capital I-Sim, a subsidiary of General Electric, is available online at www.i-sim.com.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com