Virtual road testing

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"Just like a photo scanner, we can scan the surface of a road to create a three-dimensional digital representation.” –Mine Tasci, Buick engineer

Here’s a pretty cool idea: literally taking an electronic “scan” a particular road anywhere in the world and creating a three dimensional digital model of it in a computer for testing new vehicle designs.

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Sounds far-fetched and not a little implausible, but an engineering team at Buick – a division of General Motors – has done just that.

Mine (pronounced “Mee-nay”) Tasci is one of the Buick engineers that created this “road scanner” to make what she calls “a micro-detailed 3D digital representation of some of the toughest real-world road surfaces.”

The scanner works with cameras and a laser to determine a 3D model of a road surface down to 1 millimeter of "fidelity," she explains. Once established in the computer, Tasci and her engineering cohorts then “drive” equally detailed digital Buick vehicles on these digital roads to test the vehicle’s design for quality and reliability.

So, what’s the benefit to the end user here from such “3D” testing? “In the end, it leads to higher-quality, quieter and more comfortable Buick cars and crossovers,” says Tasci. “We submit new vehicles to rigorous virtual testing well before a physical prototype ever see’s the light of day, because testing on challenging roads … allows us to find and address issues early on in the development cycle.”

Now, truck makers are no slouch at using similar technology make "virtual" improvements to their designs before said designs enter the realm of physical reality.

For example, when Kenworth Truck Co. developed its T-660 highway tractor several years back, it used a 16-by 20-foot 3-D design wall at its research and development center in Renton, WA, to fine-tune all the small details both inside and outside the vehicle.

Instead of using fiberglass molds based on a full-sized clay model that took six months to carve (a design process Kenworth used back in the 1980s for its original T-600 model) the truck maker now relies totally on computer-made truck designs; even testing said designs in computer-simulated wind tunnels.

The use of advanced computational fluid dynamics (CFD) produced aerodynamics results that typically are more precise than those from a wind tunnel, Kenworth says, while also reducing design and engineering time tremendously.

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For example, once the designs are worked out, they can then be turned into fast-produced plastic parts to create a physical vehicle prototype in days compared to the months needed in the past, Kenworth notes.

If you think that’s all engineering ‘blah, blah, blah,’ consider this one factor for a moment: license plate placement. Being able to shift the location of the front license plate just a mere inch up or down created a big difference in terms of air flow, according to Kenworth’s CFD tests on the T-660.

So figuring out in a few minutes of testing how to improve air flow around the tractor’s license plate – and thus boost fuel economy – really pays off in the long run for truckers large and small.

Now add in Buick’s “virtual road” to the testing mix. This kind of technology could potentially help truck OEMs improve vehicle handling and durability characteristics, especially for those trucks destined for harsh lives on gravel and dirt tracks, hauling all manner of goods.

It’s just one of the ways such “virtual” engineering tools can benefit the every-day trucker, even though they work far from the comfy confines of the laboratories hosting such digital wonders.

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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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