This is why driving simulators are so useful

Jon Lawson

Driving simulators are in demand now more than ever, providing repeatable laboratory-like environments to test and validate the rising number of User Interfaces (UI) and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) technologies. 

The increasing use of UI and ADAS presents an alluring challenge for testing and verification. Perhaps more so than any other element of a vehicle, this is where interactions between a machine and a human driver occur. And it means human beings are a crucial aspect of the test and verification process for vehicles with these capabilities. 

According to some industry specialists, the explosion in growth of such systems is now fuelling driving simulator developments. With advances in simulator technology moving on in leaps and bounds over the last decade, more automotive engineering departments are relying on simulation, which is fuelling the increased prominence of driver in the loop (DIL) technology. 

DIL testing ensures human interaction happens earlier and more often in a vehicle project’s timescale and creates time for more thorough tuning and testing as each system is developed. Most importantly, this means that potential issues can be identified early on, when they are less costly to address, at a time when physical prototypes might not be available. 

Even when prototype vehicles are available, they can often be in short supply, and potentially appropriated to other areas for other tests. DIL simulation can and does help to manage the workload for all departments as new systems are introduced. 

What’s becoming the new game-changer is that DIL testing is no longer the exclusive preserve of high dynamics and OEM engineers. There is now the growing trend of more departments needing access, with seating, HMI, drivetrain, safety and software validation just some examples of where engineers are relying on results gleaned from the virtual world. Having achieved the core fidelity needed to provide convincing human interaction experience and valid data, driving simulators have already come of age, backed by a long-life expectancy. 

Due to such megatrends in autonomy, electrification, connectivity and driver assistance, portable driving simulators for vehicle development applications are providing the ideal solution to those who are restricted by space or cost, thanks to their compact footprint and sophisticated computational architecture. Compact simulators are now offering opportunities across multiple departments of OEMs to successfully solve market challenges in a more immersive environment.

As vehicle complexity continues to increase, more pressure is placed on development timescales and resources, creating a burgeoning need for companies and departments to now gain access to human in the loop simulation technologies to validate hardware and software solutions. Where simple desktop solutions don’t provide the fidelity necessary, compact simulators can offer a fundamental building block for connecting real people with automotive simulations, anywhere in the world, through optimised complexity, quality, and time-to-deploy. It is just a matter of wheeling it into place, plugging in and starting work, enabling it to be operated stand-alone, or connected to external software in the loop and hardware in the loop systems.

With portable simulators incorporating features such as complex traffic and actor scripting, together with sensor integration, they are fast becoming ideal for validating scenarios for ADAS, active safety and autonomy. Add to this integrated form and internal sound isolation, and it is easy to see why they are becoming used more and more in standard office spaces.

And with some of the latest solutions on the market including driver’s seat, fully adjustable steering wheel, dashboard, pedals, gear stick and screen, it is giving OEMs, Tier 1s, research institutes and industry bodies a more immersive and car-like environment, whilst making the practical operation much easier.

Portable, compact simulation technology is a direct response to its creators’ interactions with the various segments across the automotive industry, which are seeking dependable, rapid and powerful validation tools. Acknowledging this steep rise in vehicle technological development and validation, Reportlinker analysts predict that the driving simulator market will reach US$2.4 billion by 2025. 

Industry use

This type of simulator is proving increasingly popular among the industry’s manufacturers and influencers throughout departments already invested in tech which have the existing simulation architecture in place, yet want to evaluate, experience and feel the technology from a human perspective. Simply put, a compact simulator connects real people with detailed simulation environments and is a solution that is addressing the increasing need for human in the loop simulation.  

There are of course other major OEMs now using simulation to achieve their goals, including General Motors, with their DIL simulator recently playing a key role in the engineering of its new Corvette. GM used real-time computing and a driving simulator to allow engineers to “evaluate how changes performed and how deviations to one system interacted with other systems in a virtual model, using the same physics and electronic control systems as a full prototype, allowing them to streamline changes and strengthen vehicle performance throughout every stage of development” as GM Lead Performance Engineer John Wilkinson explains.

Ford’s electric Mustang Mach-E is also the first production vehicle to be tuned by the Ford Performance team utilising a DIL simulator in North Carolina. Recalls Ron Heiser, Mach-E’s Chief Programme Engineer: “We were able to take all our inputs – whether that was body structure or chassis systems – and make tweaks. We’d drive the car as it was set up and then change bushings, or tyre compounds, to enable us to quickly understand what that was doing to the ride and handling characteristics of the car. We felt that the simulator technology was robust enough to provide us not just with directional feedback, but precise feedback.”

DIL provider Ansible Motion has just updated its offering with the launch of the Theta C. Head of Commercial at the company Gavin Farmer observes, “Connecting real people with virtual vehicles and world-space environments is important. It is necessary to include the emotional reaction and behaviours of real people – the ultimate customers. Considering the ever-increasing complexity of today’s vehicles and their on-board systems, we believe that putting real people into early-and-often contact with them is a key part of successful and efficient vehicle developments. This is why portable DIL simulators are an excellent way to accomplish this. Everyone is involved in the development process – not just traditional test drivers – with the opportunity to offer relevant subjective feedback.” 

As technologies continue to emerge and converge, the task of verifying and testing systems such as ADAS and UI will invariably become more complex for carmakers. Vehicle on-board systems that were recently on the ‘emerging technology’ list – such as electronic stability control (ESC) and anti-lock braking (ABS) - are now mandatory in most markets. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Vehicle manufacturers are tackling a lot more testing and development work in order to deploy these and other systems. It won’t stop there either. Partial autonomy is already creeping into the car industry and this, perhaps ironically again – since driver-less cars do not require ‘drivers’ per se, is another area where DIL simulators are helping the cause.  

With regards to the all-important handovers between human drivers and autonomous running modes, DIL simulators are proving to be the go-to tool. And while most industries across the world have now been plunged into uncertainty and unparalleled levels of disruption not seen since World War Two, one thing is clear as far as the future of the automotive industry is concerned: DIL simulators are already becoming the fundamental building block for connecting real people with automotive simulation environments, aimed at delivering a practical balance between cost, complexity, and capability. 

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