Quick thinking to save himself from a near car accident more than a decade ago was the impetus El Dorado Hills father of three Bob Davis needed to create Virtual Driver Interactive, a company that recently released its latest cutting-edge product to improve driver training nationwide.
While still living in the Bay Area, Davis was driving south on I-680 near San Jose when he swerved around a lawn chair that had fallen out of a truck in front of him. His oldest child, now 26, was learning to drive at the time and Davis couldn’t stop thinking about how his son would not have been as prepared in the same situation.
The longtime software and tech businessman had an idea.
“My kids were starting to get into video games and I wondered if you could use gaming technology to practice dangerous situations in a safe environment,” Davis recalled. He hired his brother-in-law, an engineer with a degree from Georgia Tech, and started Virtual Driver Interactive.
The company creates software and installs it in complete systems made with high-end gaming equipment, including gas and brake pedals, monitors and a steering wheel.
VDI launched One Simple Decision first in 2008, which focuses on distracted and impaired driving and the consequences of such actions.
One of its first clients, UPS, purchased 100 of the One Simple Decision simulators to give to Boys & Girls Clubs around the country. When UPS saw the program’s effectiveness, it asked VDI to create a training program for its 98,000 UPS drivers and VDI’s second product, Virtual Hazard Protection, was born.
Davis emphasized that UPS maintains the highest safety record of all commercial fleet drivers. Since it began using Virtual Hazard Protection, UPS officials said the company has seen a 38 percent reduction in its drivers’ crashes.
VDI was also given a U.S. Coast Guard grant to create a Boating Safety Visual Trainer boating simulator.
In November 2016 VDI unveiled Virtual Driving Solutions, a follow-up to the first product for teen drivers, which Davis said had become technologically dated. Virtual Driving Solutions is different in that it focuses on teaching driving skills and Davis said he’d like to see it in every school district in the state … for starters.
“Even though graduated licensing changes for new drivers have been helpful, 50 percent of teens have some type of crash their first year of driving,” Davis said.
Virtual Driving Solutions has 16 lessons to complete, ideally in two to three different sittings. There are also pre- and post- assessments. Virtual drivers log on and off with the same username and data is saved until the next time. They may choose between city or rural driving, weather conditions and time of day.
Artificial intelligence allows different traffic patterns to occur. Don’t be surprised to see a lawn chair in the middle of the road, either. Davis and his team are constantly tweaking it and adding details to make it more realistic. No matter which state someone is in, there is a little bit of the greater El Dorado Hills area in each simulation. The commercial area is always East Bidwell and interstate drivers will either be on Highway 50 or Highway 80.
Davis said kids like it because the technology is achievement based and there are real life distractions — phone pinging, noises and more — that drivers must navigate. There is a depleting or gaining life-bar at the top of the screen. If a person drives faster than 5 mph over the speed limit, points are taken off, for instance. If less than a 70 is scored, a lesson must be redone.
“You prove you know by doing,” Davis said.
VDI teaches drivers to expect the unexpected, something Davis said new drivers are shielded from in driver training courses.
“Driver training programs are knowledge-based, not experience based,” he explained. “Getting a license has nothing to do with showing proficiency. If it rains or if it’s foggy, the DMV cancels it. With VDI products, they get to be in dangerous situations without being in danger.”
New drivers today need six hours of in-car driving with an instructor, 30 hours of answering questions online and 50 hours with a parent as a permitted driver before getting a license. “It’s education versus hands-on training. There is no simulation,” Davis added.
Based out of the El Dorado Hills Business Park, VDI has had national coverage, featured on CNN and with products in all 50 states. Still, Davis would like to gain more exposure in the greater Sacramento region.
His three children are 26, 22 and 16, Oak Ridge High School graduates, with his youngest child a junior there. Today they are all ticket and traffic accident free.
Dustin Davis, 26, works at VDI and said the exposure he has had with VDI products has definitely made him a better driver. “Waiting three seconds at an intersection always stays with me,” he said during a recent demonstration.
Each unit is mobile; the cab version may be wheeled in and out of health classes or libraries. As other partnerships have occurred — law enforcement agencies team up with school districts to bring units to schools, for instance — Davis said that is how the units will be available for young drivers.
“It’s easy to find school districts that are interested in it, but hard to find those that can finance it,” he said. “I’d like to see a public and private partnership to make the simulators available. It’s a matter of who has the interest.”
Davis noted a county in Georgia has added a 5 percent traffic ticket surcharge to pay for simulator units for its schools. Various state law enforcement agencies travel from school district to school district with them.
He is currently working on a two-year partnership program designed to provide “proof” of improved driver safety performance as the result of participation in simulation based driver training called the State and Hospital Accident Prevention Effort. The SHAPE program needs to consist of no less than three high schools per participating state, with one to three states participating, a major healthcare system and state highway safety organizations for each to lend credibility and lastly corporate grants to fund it. At the end of the first year, driver data would be compiled and established for tracking purposes.
In the future, Davis hopes to expand the teen driving simulator internationally and design a new simulator to help emergency first responders drive more safely in stressful situations.
As they continue to refine their newest product, Davis said they welcome 14- to 17-year-olds and their parents to make an appointment to come in and try the product for free. For more information visit virtualdriverinteractive.com or to schedule a free demonstration email [email protected].