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One look at the roster in the self-driving space and you’ll instantly know that it takes gazillions of dollars to develop a fully automated car. Currently, the companies that are in the running, like Google, Apple, Nissan and Uber, can all afford to pump insane amounts of money into an experimental project that won’t yield any returns in the short term. But what about startups that want to take a stab at the nascent sector? How can they enter with a pocket full of change and IOUs?

The answer is the Driving Simulator and Vehicle Systems Lab (SimLab). Based in San Jose, California, the group houses the most advanced, research-grade simulator for self-driving technology. Small businesses that are still feeling their way around the industry can use the facilities to work on their projects, collaborate with other teams and share their ideas.

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“It’s open to everyone, and that’s new. That’s the reason why we did this,” said Dr. Lutz Eckstein, chairman of the board for fkaSV, the company running SimLab. “Any startup or any company that is interested in presenting or evaluating or optimizing their technology can come here.”

There are several reasons why the industry needs something like this. More competition can push participating companies to innovate and rapidly develop their technology. Without anyone sitting comfortably at the top position, businesses will do everything they can to solidify their spot in the autonomous vehicles race. For consumers, more hands in the sector could help drive down costs for the cars during buying season. This is what happened to the EV space, and it will likely happen to the self-driving arena as well.

At the moment, SimLab offers a rigged BMW 6 series with a 220-degree visual panel that wraps around the pod. It’s like driving a race simulation in an arcade, only you’re inside a real car. Engineers outside of the simulator control the virtual road elements on display. The graphics aren’t mind-blowingly real what with pixel representations of pedestrians and trees, but that’s okay because it’s not designed to treat you with high-level graphics. The point of the simulation is to allow professionals to mine data in real-time. The visuals are just clear enough for the driver to distinguish a moose from a traffic light without puking.

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Going one step further, engineers can throw new elements at the driver to simulate a self-driving experience. Unexpected auditory warnings and sudden vibrations, like the intrusive navigation system in Google Maps, could throw off first-time drivers and make them anxious or scared. This confusing scenario is what startups want to minimize as much as possible.

“There is a host of innovators rushing into this space – technology going into future cars will help avoid collisions, self-manage congestion and even enable better access to mobility across the board,” said Doug Davenport, executive director of ProspectSV. “These are global challenges that warrant serious attention; Silicon Valley innovators are in a position to change the face of automotive tech, and build new companies as a result.”

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