Teaching a teenager how to drive is often nerve-wracking for parents, and understandably so. Putting a kid behind the wheel of a machine that weighs a ton or more can be daunting, but it’s a necessary rite of passage to get them to that glorious day when they can drive themselves to soccer practice. Some teens take to it immediately, embracing freedom and experience, but others hesitate due to reasons like apathy or even fear.
But an innovative solution to this issue came from Loxley Browne, who is the CEO and founder of Club Athena in California, a non-profit organization that teaches girls aged 12 to 18 about STEM principles via an online platform. Browne works closely with her student advisory board to create hands-on projects for the girls in the program, and one day asked her student board president, Akshaya Koramutla, how her driver training was going.
As Browne recalls, Koramutla flinched and said, “I tried driving my dad’s car in a parking lot and it was really stressful. Another car almost hit me.”
That conversation sparked an idea for Club Athena’s next project: They would take a regular street car and turn it into a driving simulator to get the tweens and teens in the program comfortable behind the wheel.
Here’s how they turned a 1997 BMW convertible into a driving simulator.
Setting the budget
In 2019, Browne kicked off an organization called Athena Racing with the intention of teaching girls go-karting skills with a racing focus. A racing enthusiast herself, Browne wanted to share her passion with girls and help grow their confidence behind the wheel. However, the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020 derailed her in-person plan and she pivoted to online classes, as Club Athena.
From that transition came FABcamp, a week-long live virtual forum designed to inspire girls in the program with expert speakers and an afternoon hands-on fabrication session from their individual locations. The BMW-based simulator, nicknamed “Simmie,” was the group’s most recent FABcamp project, starting with that conversation between Browne and Koramutla.
“The girls all play games like Forza and iRacing,” Browne says. “They love it, and the simulator gives them driving experience without an adult in the car screaming at them.”
First, the members of the club spent a month talking to companies that make simulators, collecting feedback from experts. Motorsports simulation expert and former racer Sean Yoder is on the advisory board for Athena Racing, and he was a key asset for the project. Now CEO of Nemesis Lab, which builds high-performance simulators and gaming hardware, Yoder has an impressive background. On a previous project, he worked with Yale University Medical Research to develop software to help determine how epileptic seizures affect performance using virtual reality driving simulation during video/EEG monitoring.
Starting with an all-in pie-in-the-sky budget, the team of students—led by Koramutla, Browne, and Yoder—narrowed the budget down to a manageable number.
“The spreadsheet allowed the girls to see the different items that we would need to consider as we built Simmie,” Browne says. “It helped to define the project management and for me to talk through the different steps of the build with them.”
In 2022, they found a 1997 BMW 318i convertible online that was missing a central processing unit (or CPU) and bought it for $1,200, then spent five full days just cleaning it out. They removed the engine, transmission, and gas tank and sold those components. Then they took a sledgehammer to the front dash, which Browne jokingly refers to as “deconstruction therapy.”
“We weren’t able to get some of the parts out of the car easily,” Koramutla says. “Our solution to this problem was getting our safety gear on and using our hammers and crowbars to hack away at the unnecessary materials. The most intense part of the fabrication was concentrated on the dashboard and console area. Because we would be putting gaming components into the car, we needed to create a stable environment to attach them.”
After deconstruction, they reconstructed the interior, building a new dashboard and structure for the gaming components. The BMW received a new windshield, and the team placed monitors outside the windshield for the closest simulation to driving a real car on the street. Where the engine once was now houses the new structure for all the computer components. The steering wheel was replaced by a gaming wheel and a gaming pedal set is where the brake and accelerator used to be.
“This is an ongoing process,” Browne says. “We’re going to add a butt shaker and air vents so you feel it when you go faster. We’ll add speakers and bass to feel the rumble.”
Sharing what they learned
Browne recorded all the segments of Simmie’s build and made it available online for FABcamp participants, like a virtual shop class. Soon, she says, the video segments will be available to the public so more kids can learn.
“Akshaya was up to her elbows in the car,” Browne says. “Now she knows how to use power tools and she’ll be able to think about all of these times we used cardboard and paper to create a prototype and then create something out of metal. She wants to be a doctor, and from this experience she’ll have the confidence to walk into an invention laboratory and tell them exactly what to do to create a new medical device.”
Simmie currently resides in a shop in San Diego, and Club Athena hosts one Saturday a month when the girls can book time to play and practice driving. Sometimes, they even bring brothers or friends with them. The car doesn’t move, but its drivers can still practice cruising.
Browne’s goal is to create talent pipelines straight out of Club Athena and create paths for girls to go on and start STEM-related careers, guiding them all the way through. Her ultimate dream is to find a visionary philanthropist who wants to take it worldwide and build an “Ironman-type lab with hundreds of acres” to test builds. Just imagine a field of Simmies standing by to help teens get more comfortable with driving.