Snowplow drivers learn in virtual reality

An outside observer might think DelDOT employees were playing video games last week in Dover, but snowplow operators were actually using technology to prepare for winter. For the first time, the Delaware Department of Transportation used snowplow simulators to train drivers.

Coastal Point •  Maria Counts: Bill Graham, of L-3 Communications, instructs a snowplow operator during a simulation of a snowstorm in Dover in early November.Coastal Point • Maria Counts
Bill Graham, of L-3 Communications, instructs a snowplow operator during a simulation of a snowstorm in Dover in early November.

During the one-week trial in early November, 65 of DelDOT’s available 450 snowplow operators received training.

Training is typically done in “Truck Roadeo,” a large parking lot designed with hazards, such as traffic cones, mailboxes and cars. Simulation technology replicates much of that training ground without the fuel use and property damage.

“This is an excellent way for training somebody how to drive in a snowstorm without there actually being a snowstorm,” said Jim Westhoff of DelDOT.

The simulator comprises three large screens covering 90 degrees of vision, one centered as the windshield and two for side windows. The graphics are reminiscent of auto-racing arcade games and show the plow scooping snow as it maneuvers downtown in the virtual landscape.

Drivers sat in a real truck seat, strapped on a seatbelt and put the machine in gear. An array of buttons resembled everything from headlight controls to air conditioning. Drivers even got the realistic feel from haptic feedback as the machine chugged, jolted and resisted in the weather conditions.

The drivers undergo much training before ever operating the snowplows. The simulator’s specific purpose is to teach decision-making and proper reactions, not to teach employees how to drive the plows. The computer allows drivers to learn from mistakes they might make behind the steering wheel.

“We can show what happens when they make the wrong decisions, without hurting anybody or causing any damage,” said Bill Graham of L-3 Communications, which manages the simulators.

The simulation equipment can be adjusted to mimic school buses, motor coaches, fire trucks and more.

“Simulation training isn’t new,” said George Perez of L-3. “It’s the way we train our pilots and astronauts … over and over again, so they can react instinctively.”

Transportation offices in other states have used this technology, but because this was DelDOT’s first foray into simulated training, Westhoff said Delaware was “eager to hear what the operators think.”

Jack Springer is a seasoned driver, having operated a snowplow in Delaware for 15 years.

“It’s interesting,” Springer said. “It’s not really like the real thing, but it’s interesting. Kinda teaches you a little right from wrong.”

Drivers must pay attention to pedestrians, foggy windows, ice and many variables.

“It’s nothing I haven’t done before,” Springer said.

While this week was just a refresher course for veteran snowplow operators, DelDOT may expand its simulations next year.

“We’ll still do Truck Roadeo,” Westhoff said. “This is just one more tool. We can’t be too prepared. So far, we’re getting great feedback on this system.”

Delaware roadways run the gamut from rural streets to the I-95 expressway, so DelDOT will meet winter conditions with 450 pieces of equipment and approximately 65,000 tons of salt, as well as the trained drivers. Simulators can recreate the different types of roads with the click of a button.

“It’s a beautiful day, and the guys can drive in a blinding blizzard,” Westhoff pointed out.