UMass professor invites travelers to test-drive Boston's big dig -- before hitting the road

December 10, 2002

AMHERST, Mass. - Thanks to the efforts of a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, drivers can test-drive their routes through Boston's Big Dig before ever pulling out of the driveway. Donald Fisher and his assistants have created the Web Big Dig Drive, a virtual version of the Big Dig's tunnels and highways on the Web, so that drivers can feel confident about traveling their new routes when the massive highway project debuts in early 2003. The effort is a collaboration with the Massachusetts Highway Department and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The effort is part of Fisher's research at the Human Performance Laboratory, a facility that includes a driving simulator in which a sedan is placed before three screens, onto which highways and neighborhoods are projected. The "car" reads the driver's speed, direction, and even eye movements as input. Other research projects at the lab have included determining optimal signage for the Big Dig; teaching younger drivers to anticipate dangerous situations on the road; and determining the safety of voice-activated car phones. This particular project marks the first collaboration between a driving simulator lab and a major federal construction project, Fisher said. "Putting a test drive on the Web makes sense, because it reduces the potential for accidents," he said.

The Web Big Dig Drive currently details all of the Central Artery tunnel sections of Interstate 93 north and southbound, extending 1½ miles in each direction. It also details the section of the Massachusetts Turnpike (Interstate 90) that starts at the Prudential Center and heads eastbound under Four Point Channel and through South Boston to the portal of the Ted Williams Tunnel. It will soon detail the section of Interstate 93 that starts south of the Massachusetts Turnpike and also heads under Four Point Channel to the portal of the Ted Williams Tunnel. To use the system, drivers log onto www.ecs.umass.edu/hpl, click on the Big Dig button on the left-hand side, and then view their test drive.

The site shows all the details a driver will need, including signage, pavement markers, and side barriers, Fisher said. "We've included not only driveable surfaces but also visible elements, so that 'driving' a virtual car through the Web site will give people as realistic a sense of the new roadways as possible, before they actually get there." The effort is aimed not just at commuters who will be trying to get to work on time, but also occasional travelers to Boston, and those who are headed to Logan Airport. The Web site, which relies on streaming video, is particularly helpful in familiarizing drivers with interchanges that might otherwise be tricky during the first few drives.

"Roughly 250,000 people each day take Interstate 93 north to the Callahan Tunnel and Logan Airport. This route will no longer be available once the new construction opens. Those people need to know where they're going," said Fisher. "Drivers will go through a period of adjustment, getting accustomed to the new routes, entrances and exits. This is an effort at helping them get comfortable with the details of those routes ahead of time. We want people to know the way without injuring themselves or others, or dealing with the inconvenience of missing an exit."
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Note: The Web Big Dig Drive can be viewed by going to www.ecs.umass.edu/hpl and clicking on the BigDig button on the left. Donald Fisher can be reached at 413/545-1657 or dfisher@ecs.umass.edu

The videos are in RealPlayer format. The RealPlayer software can be downloaded for free from www.real.com

University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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