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||Can They Dig It?
We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This
week a long-delayed and very expensive part of
Boston's Big Dig just opened to the public. The
new tunnel project moves miles of notoriously
congested aboveground roadways underground. To
try to make the journey a bit easier to
navigate, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's
Big Dig web site includes a virtual drive
through the tunnels. The technology used to
create this online map also helps engineers
design the exit signs for what is being called
"the most complicated tunnel geometry in the
world." Susan Kaplan reports.
SUSAN KAPLAN: To give you an
idea of just how complicated Boston's Central
Artery Project is, imagine you're looking down
at a table-size map of the tunnel. What you'd
see would look a lot like a plate of spaghetti.
To help drivers wind their way through this maze
and to design the virtual Big Dig, the
Massachusetts Turnpike Authority solicited help
from the Human Performance Laboratory at the
University of Massachusetts where inside an
ordinary-looking trailer sits an unusual quarter
of a million dollar high-tech driving simulator
called-- an infinite reality machine.
What the computer does is really a very fast
dance between the driver and the picture on the
screen. It projects at 60 hertz -- that is, 60
times a second -- a new view of the world.
Mechanical engineering professor Donald Fisher
explains how the computer generates images onto
three small movie-size screens that sit in front
of a 1995 black Saturn. When the driver gets in
the car, the computer projects a virtual
roadway, and in a video-game-like fashion shows
how the tunnel will appear.
DONALD FISHER: And that's one
of the reasons that this was put on the web --
so that drivers who had never seen before what
the signage was like in the Central Artery would
have a chance to see it and hopefully not make
the mistakes that would lead to incidents,
crashes or other--problems in the, in the
KAPLAN: Fisher and his team of graduate
students have clocked about 100,000 virtual
miles on the test car. They use the information
to get a handle on how drivers will react.
Fisher says the best way to see how the tunnel
design works is to put people behind the wheel.
So-- I offered to give it a try. My assignment?
To find the Cambridge Exit. [VIRTUALLY DRIVING]
Starrow Drive --Exit 26. Okay, we're not getting
FISHER: You just missed your Cambridge
KAPLAN: It didn't say Cambridge did it?!
KAPLAN: As it turned out, it took me more
than a few attempts to get it right. [SEAT BELT
SIGNAL PLAYS] [AHEMS] Just for the record, this
is "Going to Cambridge --Take 4." [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER] [VIRTUALLY DRIVING] Oh-- my goodness.
Cambridge! I see Cambridge.
DONALD FISHER: Anything else?
SUSAN KAPLAN: I
see north and I see Exit 26 in small numbers.
Okay -- Exit 26. Now it says Exit 26 - Starrow
Drive -- this is confusing! I'm not confused at
the moment [LAUGHS] but as you know, it took
quite a bit of-- took an effort.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Fisher assured
me that I was not alone in my let's just say
less-than-stellar performance. In fact, he
thinks the Cambridge Exit illuminates one of the
biggest design challenges.
DONALD FISHER: Here in the
tunnels, the ceilings are 17 feet high. Trucks
are 13 and a half feet high. Normally you sign
two-lane exits with option-through lanes with
signs who are 8 feet high. There is hardly 8
feet of height here in the tunnel, let alone 8
feet of height for a sign and a truck to pass
through. There's only 3 feet--
SUSAN KAPLAN: In other words,
there's not enough space in the tunnel for signs
that are big enough for drivers to read!
Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman
Matthew Amarillo acknowledges the complexity of
the tunnels. He says that's exactly why the Big
Dig's final hurdle will be to make sure drivers
know how to get where they're going.
AMARILLO: One of the kind of efforts on
the part of the Turnpike Authority and all of us
in transportation is to provide information to
motorists in real time so they can make trip
plans accordingly, and because we are entering
this world of tunnel-driving, it's going to
require that we do provide that information.
Helicopters and traffic reports are not going to
be able to give you a report of what's happening
underground. [SEATBELT UNFASTENED SIGNAL PLAYS]
Amarillo says state of the art roadways are
merging with Internet technology to produce a
new kind of super highway -- one that he says
may depend heavily on the virtual world for its
success. For On the Media, I'm Susan Kaplan.
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