Designing in the virtual realm helps auto designers operate more efficiently while emphasizing quality.

Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief

February 21, 2024

5 Min Read
An automotive engineer uses digital tech such as augmented reality for car design and prototyping. gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Virtual prototyping involves using various technologies—from computer-aided design software to simulation tools—to create highly detailed prototypes before making the physical versions. Car manufacturers increasingly use this method to meet their automotive prototyping needs. Many decision-makers in this industry find prototyping in the virtual realm helps team members collaborate and cooperate while working on pioneering, advanced designs. 

1. Accelerating Software Development

People frequently refer to modern cars as software-defined vehicles. Software optimizes fuel economy, allows drivers to start their cars, and controls the throttle when someone presses the gas pedal. Automotive manufacturers also deliver over-the-air software updates, so car owners always have the latest features or security patches. 

The software aspect is so essential that Swedish tech company RemotiveLabs sells a platform to enable virtual prototyping of all a vehicle’s software and electronics. This collaborative and cloud-based tool allows people to develop those components before working on the hardware. A RemotiveLabs representative said this approach supports speed and iteration. Customers mentioned the platform made prototyping occur four to five times faster than traditional methods. 

Volvo Cars is a RemotiveLabs client, and the automaker uses its platform to prototype and test its vehicles’ electronic control units. This change to automotive prototyping has reportedly increased flexibility and made complex software development more scalable. 

Additionally, the interface's user-friendliness allows people to focus on coding and skill development without needing extensive expertise or familiarity with the tech platform. The cloud functionality also supports cooperation across geographical boundaries. 

2. Increasing Sustainable Development Processes

Many consumers demand sustainable products. However, some overlook how sustainability could start during the research and development phases. A virtual prototyping tool is an excellent option to eliminate travel-related emissions associated with in-person design meetings. 

Design engineers can also minimize waste this way. Indian company Apollo Tyres Limited relied on a virtual prototyping and simulation tool when developing a new all-season tire. Computer simulations assisted designers in optimizing the product’s tread and contouring to increase driving range and cut rolling resistance. 

The design team also completed this project faster than any other tire in the brand family. The sustainability gains included reduced raw materials and emissions during pre-production development and testing.

Company leaders understand how real-world testing remains necessary and valuable. However, they recognize combining it with virtual prototyping supports sustainability and market competitiveness. Prototype visualization is one of the critical early steps for success. Digital platforms can improve it, but this example shows the advantages span further. 

3. Incorporating User Feedback

Design cooperation discussions often center on exchanges between design engineers working behind the scenes to turn product concepts into physical, marketable items. However, input from future users is also valuable in making products as useful as possible for those who will interact with them. 

Such was the case with the design of a General Motors electric delivery van, the BrightDrop Zevo 600. The development process included several advanced, virtualized technologies, including virtual reality (VR). The vehicle broke an automotive prototyping record with a design time frame of only 20 months—making it the fastest to reach the market in the automaker’s history. This vehicle was also notable because it incorporated features due to driver feedback and in-depth knowledge of what the target audience would appreciate.

Engineers specifically designed the vehicle’s power delivery to make it very similar to those with diesel engines, thereby easing the learning curve of transitioning to electric fleets. Additionally, with a step-in height of 15 inches—3 inches lower than most  comparable vehicles—the van is more user-friendly for drivers who often need to get in and out dozens of times daily during their routes.

Besides helping designers cooperate, virtual prototyping let them work efficiently while maintaining their commitments to safety and quality. They did all this in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and immersive, virtual tech helped them ease into working from home as a new normal. 

This vehicle was GM’s first all-electric delivery van, and it has gained a reputation as an industry favorite. That’s likely largely due to the changes made in response to people’s feedback. Traditional prototyping methods don’t always allow making quick changes, but virtual ones support that option for everyone’s benefit. When designers can alter things efficiently, later-stage changes become less likely. This approach also facilitates problem-solving and nurtures creative mindsets. 

4. Facilitating International Collaboration

Most automakers have factories, design centers, and other facilities in multiple states and countries. Their broad footprints aid in scaling up or catering to new markets as needs change. Spreading across the globe also relieves some supply chain-related challenges that more automakers have recently experienced. 

Honda is gradually transitioning to more virtual prototyping options while still relying on older methods, such as life-sized clay models. However, the automaker also has VR studios playing a progressively larger role in design processes. 

One of the main benefits is that designers in the United States and Japan could weigh in about interior and exterior car features without boarding planes. Company representatives said this method shortens design maturity time frames and fosters instant feedback. 

Additionally, VR occasionally eliminates checking virtual prototypes against physical models. Designers who used the technology said it accelerated model development, allowing people to create and review several versions the same day. Minimizing delays helps these multicountry design teams meet or exceed deadline expectations. 

How Will You Use Virtual Prototyping?

Design team cooperation is essential for enhancing quality control, helping people brainstorm and solve problems, and allowing participants to try new versions with minimal delays. Designers outside the automotive industry are also beginning to work with virtual prototype tools, and you may also find them valuable across different sectors. 

About the Author(s)

Emily Newton

Editor-in-Chief, Revolutionized

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist with more than five years’ experience writing articles for the engineering and manufacturing sectors. As editor-in-chief of Revolutionized, she also discusses how tech innovations are changing many industries around the world.

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