There’s a danger that any decisions taken at this early stage might prove difficult to reverse if the programme is based largely on physical prototypes. For instance, altering the hard points of the suspension can become extremely difficult once these have been laid down in the early prototypes – potentially forcing the development team to commit to a decision that they might later regret.
Using simulation provides engineers with a clean sheet, freeing them from these constraints. In one instance, an automotive OEM found that using Ansible Motion’s DIL simulators allowed it to bypass the first physical prototyping generation altogether. When the results were reviewed at the end of the programme the early digital prototype results were found to be more representative of the finished vehicle than would have been expected from a test mule at the same stage. This allowed more informed decisions to be made during the early stages of the project – the benefits of which were carried right through the development process.
Using virtual prototypes in the early stages not only removes the approximations that are sometimes involved with test mules, but also provides limitless freedom to experiment with different concepts. For instance, a manufacturer could evaluate the cost-to-benefit implications of adopting an entirely different suspension configuration or a new driveline layout on its next model.
This ability to approach projects with a clean sheet mentality is particularly useful as the car industry enters what promises to be a period of technological disruption, with new technologies such as battery electric powertrain prompting a fundamental rethink of vehicle design. Electric vehicles can have anything from one to four motors, driving one or more sets of wheels; the batteries might live under the floor of the cabin or down the backbone of the chassis; they might use mechanical differentials or software-driven torque vectoring. Even simple things like new packaging solutions influencing the driving position can have a big impact on the customer experience. It’s arguably the biggest shake up that the automotive industry has seen in a century and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
Another example is the arrival of intelligent chassis systems. Terrain-scanning active suspension, active anti-roll bars and rear-wheel steering are among the technologies that are becoming more commonplace as chassis systems evolve. Offline simulation of these features is limited to numerical predictions. In contrast, not only does DIL simulation provide more representative driver inputs for these quantitative studies, it also adds a much-needed qualitative impression.
It’s important to bear in mind that objective improvements won’t always result in a more pleasant or more involving experience for a human driver. For instance, there’s a risk that filtering out all imperfections from the road surface could leave keen drivers feeling detached from control of the vehicle or that a keener turn-in response could lead to the vehicle feeling nervous.
Looking further ahead, work is already taking place on advanced concepts such as high-level autonomy, alongside new mobility models like ridesharing. These will change the demands on vehicle chassis development, packaging and performance. The success of these concepts will depend heavily on the customer experience, which is a highly subjective topic, requiring an accurate and immersive representation of the vehicle to fully evaluate.