Making Vehicles Better Virtually

We’ve all seen the photos of engineers in white lab coats populating vast testing laboratories. These giant test labs are one of the key aspects that separate big, successful car companies from backyard wannabes. In the complicated task of developing a motor vehicle that will operate for 100,000 miles, intensive testing and development work has always been an expensive requirement. But these days, the power of the silicon chip is replacing thousands of square feet of lab space and thousands of hours of tests. Today’s sophisticated computers can do complex design and durability that previously would have taken months in just a few minutes. 

Ford Motor Co., for example, has invested heavily in computer power to allow it to shave months off the product development process, while improving the quality, comfort and customer appeal of its cars and trucks. Ford says its product development is anywhere from eight to 14 months faster than it was as recently as 2004, and that increased agility means it can get vehicles to market faster to take advantage of trends. Company execs attribute the increased speed, in part, to combining the most advanced virtual and digital tools available.

“We’re really competitive in terms of time to market, thanks in part to our digital capabilities,” 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.”

Many of the industry-exclusive virtual tools being utilized by Ford engineers and designers are housed inside the Immersive Virtual Review (iVR) lab at the Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich. There, designers and engineers can evaluate early vehicle designs against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a vehicle from the consumer’s vantage point before it is built. 

“Ford is the industry leader when it comes to melding state-of-the-art motion capture and immersive virtual reality tools to yield a number of impressive results,” said Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s VR & Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist. “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 days gone by, Ford designers and engineers would don suits to simulate mobility issues associated with aging or even pregnancy. That’s all a thing of the past, according to Eero Laansoo, a Ford Human Factors Engineer.

“One of the questions I often get asked is ‘Do engineers really wear pregnancy suits?’ and the answer is, ‘We used to.’ There is no better way to get to know the customer than by walking a mile in their shoes,” Laansoo said. “What was so effectively measured by wearing the suits -- such as the difficulty you may have with finding a comfortable seating position -- is now done digitally.”

Within the iVR lab, anthropometric research gathered by engineers like Laansoo is studied to ensure vehicle designs can accommodate the broadest range of customers. Items evaluated range from the obvious, such as reach and roominess and ingress and egress, to examining door handle location.

Such design considerations are increasingly important as U.S. demographics depict a population that is growing older as well as larger. Census statistics show that nearly one in three Americans now meets the American Medical Association’s classification of “obese.” The same data shows that 30 percent of all adults over age 20 have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Approximately 51.2 million people say they have a disability; for 32.5 million of them, the disability is severe. And the population is aging -- 13 percent of the total population is 65 and older. The number of people 85 and older is 5.5 million.

The specialized tools within the iVR lab that make such wide-ranging customer evaluations possible include a Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE), a Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM) and an open-volume immersive station. All are excellent tools to allow Ford to tailor-make its vehicles to accommodate large segments of the consumer population without actually building prototypes and doing real-world testing. The results are vehicles that are better-suited to a variety of conditions, all designed with the magic of the computer chip.