It’s the last lap. Ahead of you is the race leader, and after staring at his exhaust for a dozen or so minutes, you decide it’s time for a change in scenery. You draft up, closing the distance, then juke to the inside at the very last moment as you both enter the braking zone. You’re alongside him, your rear end light as you ride the threshold of adhesion. The corner is yours, and if you drive right, so is the race.
Suddenly, some back marker clips your fender, smoke pouring from two locked front tires. There’s no time to react, no space to maneuver, and no grip left to use. You’re shoved sideways, and all three of you plow off track, suspension crumpled, aero scrapped, bodywork splintered. Game over.
But hey, that’s racing – if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? And if the above scenario played out in real life, the end result would probably be a broken bank.
But modern technology can offer the same adrenaline charge without the choice between ramen or sardine dinners. Not only are driving simulators getting cheaper, they’re more immersive as well.
From entertainment to hardcore professional training, driving simulators are hitting the mainstream in a big way. In this article, we’ll take a look at how the tech has developed over the years, followed by a few standout examples and what they look like compared to the real world.
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The first driving simulators were created in the late 50s and early 60s as a means of training and driver behavior research. Most of the technology originally came from NASA, which was busy developing sims to prepare astronauts for spaceflight. However, a lack of adequate visuals meant these early examples went into decline by the mid 60s.
That quickly changed in the early 70s, when graphics simulation became advanced enough to render crude, blocky representations of real-world objects. It was around this time that arcades began to offer the first car racing video games. One prime example is Speed Race, launched in 1974 by Japanese developer Taito. The game featured an overhead point-of-view, with scrolling sprites and collision detection. It supported up to two players, and used a racing wheel, accelerator, gear shifter, speedometer and tachometer for controls.
Here we find two clearly defined categories for driving sims: the fun pastime of arcade racers, and the serious realism of simulators as research tools. Gradually, the two would intermingle, giving birth to the wide range of genres that we see today.
As technology progressed, the experience deepened. In 1985, for example, Daimler Benz AG invested DM 25 million into the creation of a state-of-the-art simulator to study human behavior behind the wheel. The machine used hydraulic legs, a 180-degree projection screen, and complex computer controls to render the sights, sounds, and sensations of driving in the real world.
Sims for fun were also progressing, such as with Sega’s Virtua Racing, released in 1992. It offered 3D graphics and multiplayer machine linking, laying the groundwork for the modern racing game.
Over time, the various sensory features of driving sims improved dramatically, with graphics and sounds that closely mimicked reality thanks to exponential growth in computing power. Haptic simulation (vibration and motion) eventually trickled down to video games, and as the technology became cheaper, it also became more accessible.
Casual Video Games
A lot of fun can be had in the consequence-free environment of a computer simulation, as is apparent from the current breed of casual racing games. These are characterized by cartoonish graphics, less demanding physics, and usually some form of vehicular combat. Drifting is a single button-push away. A head-on crash into some solid barrier at triple-digit speeds usually results in a brief front flip before you’re ready to continue. Brakes are optional. Tracks employ as much airtime as possible. Gear required for play is cheap. Standout examples include Need for Speed, Midnight Club and Burnout.
Now we’re getting a little more serious. Handling and physics are more realistic, and so are crashes. Variables like tire wear start to make an appearance. Tracks imitate real-life equivalents. Techniques like a proper racing line and trail braking become mandatory for quick times.
The majority of consumer simulators fall into this category, often with the option of skewing the experience towards either casual play or realism. Popular examples include Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo.
While some enjoy these sims with analog stick controllers, more hardcore sim racers will spend thousands to build extensive setups employing multiple screens, fixed-back bucket seats, and haptic-feedback. Some companies sell ready-built, turnkey rigs, a few of which cost as much as some cars. One extreme example would be the VirtualGT Pro Carbon, which comes with a quad-actuator motion chassis, a Sparco haptic-feedback steering wheel with six real-time adjustment knobs, haptic-feedback pedals, a sequential shifter, and three 46-inch high-definition displays. Final price is $67,172.
At the upper end of software in this category is iRacing.com, which is a PC-based subscription service that offers hyper-realistic tracks and vehicles for both entertainment and race-training purposes. The developer has established partnerships with multiple real-world race organizations, including the SCCA, Williams F1, NASCAR, and the Skip Barber Racing School, which makes iRacing.com representative of the grey area between games and tools.
When it comes to the business of racing, every tenth counts, so professional race teams are spending big bucks to have the best technology available for drivers and engineers. Ferrari, as you might expect, dropped close to $6 million in 2010 to build its own high-tech F1 simulator.
Consisting of a 2-ton ball poised 15 feet in the air, drivers sit in an actual F1 tub facing a 180-degree 3D projection screen while surround-sound stereo pumps in the high-pitched wail of an engine at 18,000 rpm.
Virtual World vs. Real World
Since 2008, Nissan has partnered with Sony to offer Gran Turismo players the chance to make the transition from virtual racing to the real world. It’s called GT Academy, and this is how it works:
Potential pro racers start by competing in an online in-game time trial. The top international gamers are then flown to the UK to vie against one another in a race driver-training program at Silverstone. The whole thing is broadcast as reality TV, and the fastest driver gets a gig driving race cars for real.
So far, the program has been spot on with finding talent. Take the rise of British race driver Jann Mardenborough. After beating out 90,000 other entrants to become the 2011 GT Academy champion, the then-20-year-old went on to score a third-place finish in class at the Dubai 24 Hour race. He had no prior racing experience before GT Academy. Mardenborough is currently racing for Carlin Motorsport in the GP3 formula series.
While certainly an entertaining diversion for some, modern driving simulators have made huge gains towards evening the playing field of motorsport. The technology is so accurate and accessible, anyone with a few hundred bucks and a passion for going fast can give it a shot with the hopes of making the leap to real-world racing.
The benefits are extensive. While the results of many series often reflect financial investment over actual talent, a simulated spec series is perfectly equalized. You don’t need a small fortune to race in the virtual world. All the cost is up front, and while you can pony up for high-dollar equipment, the lower-tier stuff is just as capable of taking a win. Virtual racing doesn’t include costs for tires, fuel, track fees, and maintenance – just hit the on switch and go.
Mistakes in the real world of racing can cost more than money, but with simulators, rookies are allowed to crash endlessly until they get it right. What’s more, an Internet broadband connection is all you need to challenge real live drivers across the world, any time, day or night.
So what are the drawbacks? Unfortunately, there are some things that even the most accurate sims can’t replicate. A true sense of speed comes from more than computer-generated images, sounds, and vibrations. There is a certain, nearly indescribable feeling that comes with real-world race driving, a visceral sort of amalgamation of the senses that ones and zeroes have yet to reproduce. The dread of a looming tire wall, the buffeting of wind against your helmet, the smell of rubber – these are the things sims just cant touch.
However, as a way to learn the basics, simulators are virtually unbeatable.
Driving simulators have come a long way since Speed Race. Nowadays, they can either be fun or tools, sometimes both, used by pros and amateurs alike for a variety of different purposes.
As the technology progresses the average individual will undoubtedly benefit from higher immersion at lower costs, thanks to the intrinsic value that sims offer the pros.
What’s next? For starters, virtual reality tech, such as what’s offered by the Oculus Rift, is sure to make surround projection screens obsolete, while haptic-feedback controls and cockpits will become much more commonplace.
The real question is how the world of motorsport will be affected. It’s not out of the question to think future hot shoes will be born in the virtual world before transitioning to the real one. Will platforms like Gran Turismo and iRacing.com replace karting and club racing as the path to a pro career? So far, all signs appear to point towards the affirmative.