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By Matt Wilson, @wilsonstcomms

I pride myself on being a safe driver, but let’s face it, piloting my early 2000s Ford Escort is about as easy as a go-kart. This is why I was intrigued when a couple colleagues here at SamTrans suggested I try out the bus simulator at our North Base bus operations facility in South San Francisco. Piloting a virtual 40-foot bus full of passengers, I figured, would be a fun challenge.

The simulator is located inside the base’s maintenance building, and is used primarily to train new bus operators before they hit the road, recreate accident scenarios, learn emergency avoidance maneuvers and reduce right-side collisions. It’s all run off a computer terminal that creates many custom scenarios.

Guiding me through the simulation was SamTrans legend Ron Jordan, who has been with the organization since the early 1980s. He trains bus drivers and is a wizard behind the wheel himself.

At the terminal, Jordan has access to all kinds of ways to manipulate what drivers see on the screens in front of them. He can add various effects, situations and hazards, and says he can create just about any scenario a SamTrans driver will encounter on the road. The program can manipulate the amount of darkness, magnitude of wind, amount of traffic and the aggressiveness of drivers (ranging from passive to scarily aggressive). Weather and atmospheric conditions can be customized, too, right down to the amount of fog, rain, dust and snow. Drivers can test their driving in urban, rural, small town and highway environments.

My first task was to take the bus through a busy downtown street, similar to one you might find in Manhattan or San Francisco where everything and anything is either trying to crash into you or begging to be hit. “Easy enough,” I said as I hit the brakes to avoid hitting a sedan pulling out of a parking spot. Whew!

I then took the bus up the street to a stop light. Again, easy enough, but then I encountered a challenge that only a seasoned driver like Ron Jordan would know how to handle. Another bus came around the corner and impeded both of our paths forward. What’s the correct move? Backing up was out of the question for either of our elephantine buses. This is where Jordan stepped in and said the correct move was to radio for help and get guidance to restore order.

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Another scenario saw me pilot the bus toward railroad tracks and check very carefully for trains, then make a few safe right-hand turns and circle back to the tracks. Not too difficult despite my snail’s pace, but it was around this time I realized just how much of a pro Jordan is at his job; he knew I was getting woozy from motion sickness before I even did. This all occurred after less than 10 minutes!

Simulator sickness evidently is a real thing, and Jordan says he can identify “tells” in drivers that make it clear they’re getting fatigued, dizzy or just plain ill.  I took this as a sign to exit the simulator and take a break. Amazingly, I didn’t feel like my normal self for more than an hour after this.

The simulator offers more than staring ahead at three video screens. The seat and steering wheel section includes most of the levers, buttons and everything else you’d find if you climbed into a real driver’s seat. You even feel the rumble of the engine. Drivers are tested with checking mirrors, blind spots, setting the parking brake and proper signaling. Both turns signals, I learned, are on the floor to the left of the brake and accelerator.

Drivers are tested on more than just road work. The simulator teaches patience and trouble-shooting skills, which can be learned through some scary scenarios like an on-board fire. Whoa! For added fun, Jordan says he can get into an adjacent terminal and drive another vehicle in the simulator to create live scenarios.

Though you’ll find far superior graphics on the latest video game systems, the simulator is pretty cool and you really do feel like you’re driving one of SamTrans’ hulking vehicles. I was told that a new simulator could come to the agency in the not-too-distant future if some grant funding comes through.

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The MB 2000-V8 model simulator was manufactured by FAAC Incorporated out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to a list of facts, conveniently laminated and taped to the side of a screen, SamTrans is the seventh organization in the world to use this type of simulator. It provides a 315-degree field of view and can be configured for SamTrans sub fleets like the 35-foot Gillig Phantom, 40-foot Gillig Phantom, and 60-foot NABI Articulated Transit Coach models. Other transit agencies with this simulator include ones in New York City, Washington, D.C, Dallas, Houston Metro and St. Louis.

When the new simulator makes its way to SamTrans, I’ll be back in the driver’s seat to test my skills. I’ll be better prepared for the hazard’s on the road and hopefully my stomach is up to the challenge too.

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