Virtual lab for vehicles

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The iVR [Immersive Virtual Review] lab gives us a competitive advantage because as a vehicle design is developed in the digital world, it can also be quickly and cost-effectively evaluated for optimal form and function in the lab using real-world customer data - while also shaving anywhere from eight to 14 months off the product development process.” -Elizabeth Baron, virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, Ford Motor Company


Cars and trucks are increasingly being designed with new “digital” tools as a way to not only improve on quality and functionality, but speed up production as well - and maybe even lower vehicle costs.


All of that is critical in this day and age, where the price of petroleum is fluctuating all over the place ($148 per barrel in July, down to $96 per barrel just yesterday). The uncertainty built into the fuel supply is forcing car and truck makers to retool their product lines so they sip less fuel while delivering better capability. That process used to take months, if not years, with engineers painstakingly building three-dimensional models (called “bucks”) by hand, and collecting real-world human factors data in the same laborious fashion.


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[Hard at work within Ford's iVR lab.]


No more. As the engineers at Ford Motor Company showed off recently, virtual reality laboratories are allowing vehicle manufacturers to compress those design cycles significantly - while improving quality and functionality. Eventually, doing so much more design work digitally may also reduce vehicle costs, as concept-to-reality timeframes are shortened, less money is spent on physical engineering needs, and data is shared more easily among several product development initiatives simultaneously.


“Our product development is anywhere from eight to 14 months faster than it was as recently as 2004 - and that acceleration is due, in part, to ... combining advanced virtual and digital tools,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford‘s group vice president of global product development. “Using the technologies at hand to continue accelerating the development of quality products that customers want and value is an essential part of this company‘s success going forward.”


At Ford‘s Immersive Virtual Review (iVR) lab at its Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich., designers and engineers evaluate early vehicle designs against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a vehicle from someone else‘s vantage point before it is built, helping create Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products that provide the “perfect fit” for almost all customer body types, said Elizabeth Baron, Ford‘s virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist.


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“Melding state-of-the-art motion capture and immersive virtual reality tools yields a number of impressive results,” she noted. “They include better visibility, quality and comfort for vehicle occupants, not to mention faster-to-market product delivery for Ford and overall cost savings that benefit everyone.”


In the past, Ford‘s designers and engineers would don suits to simulate mobility issues associated with aging, or even pregnancy, according to Eero Laansoo, a human factors engineer. “There is no better way to get to know the customer than by walking a mile in their shoes,” Laansoo said. “But what was so effectively measured by wearing ‘pregnancy‘ suits - such as the difficulty you may have with finding a comfortable seating position - is now done digitally.”


Within the iVR lab, anthropometric research (translation: the measurement of living human individuals for the purposes of understanding human physical variation) gathered by engineers like Laansoo is studied to ensure vehicle designs can accommodate a broad range of body types - allowing engineers to evaluate reach and roominess, ingress, and egress, to examining door-handle location.


Laansoo said such design considerations are increasingly important as U.S. demographics show a population that is growing older as well as larger. U.S. Census statistics show that nearly one in three Americans now meets the American Medical Association‘s classification of “obese,” approximately 51.2 million people say they have a disability (for 32.5 million of them, the disability is severe), and 13% of the total U.S. population is 65 and older - with the number of people 85 and older at 5.5 million.


That‘s where the Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE) - a programmable Vehicle Model (PVM) and an open-volume immersive station - come into play, said Baron.


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CAVE uses advanced motion-tracking equipment and computer software to generate virtual vehicle interiors and exteriors at actual scale, reducing the need to build physical prototypes. Within the CAVE, Baron said Ford‘s designers evaluate the ergonomics of the interior, exterior craftsmanship and clarity of views. The evaluator, for example, can look over his or her shoulder to judge whether the second row headrest would obscure a driver‘s view or to determine if the package tray under the rear window is too high.


“The CAVE offers a wide field of view with peripheral vision,” said Baron. “Virtually anything you can see on a vehicle can be duplicated, from the A-pillar to the underbody.”


Before the digital explosion, an interior design team would build a stationary three-dimensional physical “buck” to evaluate items such as seating positions, headroom and steering wheel angle. This “buck,” though, lacked the flexibility to accommodate multiple design iterations during the evolution of a vehicle program - meaning that each round of design changes required either modifications to the existing buck or the construction of a new one, adding time and cost to a product‘s development.


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[New vehicle concepts, like this 4-Trac, can now be designed faster and cheaper with Ford's new digital tools.]


No more, said Baron. Now Ford‘s PVM computer-controlled, adjustable physical device instantly takes on the dimensions of the full-size interior of any product so engineers can evaluate multiple design options against a number of criteria, including reach, blind spots, reflections, headroom and steering wheel angle, just to name a few.


Take for example Ford‘s new Flex crossover vehicle. Evaluators enter the Flex-dimensioned PVM, put on a headset and gloves and become totally immersed in a digital Flex driving experience. In this virtual world, they can interact with the Flex‘s steering wheel, controls and instrument cluster while moving through a virtual town.


According to Baron, the PVM coupled with virtual simulation allows engineers to see how their designs are affected by the physical placement of the components. “With the physical touch-points of the customer represented in the PVM, we can effectively simulate the comfort of the beltline, the ease of reach for the shifter and other key areas,” she noted. PVM simulations on the Flex lead to several important design changes. Flex‘s seats, for example, were moved closer to the door openings for smoother entry and exit.


In the open-volume station, an operator, outfitted with a special headset and gloves, can immediately be immersed in a computer-generated virtual vehicle interior or exterior environment - complete with accurate depth perception - and be asked to perform certain tasks such as closing a lift gate or deck lid. The operator‘s actions are then captured by sophisticated cameras that track the movement of the sensors on the headset and gloves and can be loaded into a computer program for further scaled studies, she explained.


According to Baron, the open-volume virtual simulation allows engineers to see how their designs interact with people of different statures. “We can simply and quickly scale an evaluator to another person‘s stature so they can perform the same task at a different physical dimension - a 4-foot, 9-inch woman can become a 6-foot, 3-inch man or vice versa with only a few keystrokes,” she said.


“For an automobile to truly have good design, it can't just be aesthetically pleasing, the design also needs to be user friendly and safe,” added Pat Schiavone, a Ford design director. “These new tools allow us to quickly and accurately ensure, during the development process, that we are achieving our goals.”


Pretty heady stuff, if you ask me. Will it be enough to help Ford realign its products, boost sales, and stop hemorrhaging red ink? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, technological advances like these will indeed do just that.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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