From headlights to electronic components to self-driving vehicles, automakers, Tier One suppliers, and tech companies are increasingly testing their products in virtual worlds before they hit real-life highways. And many of those virtual worlds are being created right here in Southeast Michigan.

Testing vehicles and their many components in a simulation scenario increases the safety of those products and decreases the time it takes to bring them to market. Using simulation software also reduces time spent testing in the real world and is more cost-effective.

Two of the major focuses of simulation testing are advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles. Simulation scenarios can be specific to a component or a vehicle but they can also mimic real-life environments, including simulated roadways, buildings, trees, fire hydrants, and unexpected encounters with cyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers.

Mahendra Muli, director of marketing and new business development for dSPACE, runs dSPACE's sensory realistic simulation.
Mahendra Muli, director of marketing and new business development for dSPACE, runs dSPACE’s sensory realistic simulation.

Among the Metro Detroit companies designing these virtual environments are: Mechanical Simulation, which provides car, truck, and motorcycle simulation packages; dSPACE, a developer of hardware and software tools for developing and testing electronic control units; and AVL, which provides development, simulation, and testing capabilities for all types of powertrains and energy production systems.

Based in Ann Arbor, Mechanical Simulation recently released its newest version of simulation software for cars, trucks, and bikes. The upgrades include built-in support for electrified powertrains, improved tools for making use of external data, and refined capabilities for ADAS and autonomous vehicles.

“Our core technology is vehicle dynamic simulation software,” says Damon A. Becker, director of business infrastructure for Mechanical Simulation. “In our software, we try to develop the vehicle with specific performance guidelines in mind. In the past 20 years, things have changed, so much so that software today can do what OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers were doing on (road and slalom tests). Software has become an engineering simulation platform.”

Mechanical Simulation’s customers can use the simulation software on their laptops, but the company also has systems available to run tests on high-performance computing systems.

“That means an OEM or Tier One supplier could run a million simulations in less than an hour,” Becker says.

If you think this all sounds a bit video game-esque, you’re right. In fact, some of Mechanical Simulation’s staff artists were hired from the video game industry. They are able to help create real-world environments for the simulation products.

“They’re very good at creating realistic, very tuned environments,” Becker says. “If you make something too graphically intensive, no computer can run it in real time and it’s kind of useless to anybody. These guys have tricks and tips they’ve learned from 25 years of being in the industry.”

There are challenges, of course. Recently, Mechanical Simulation was hired to replicate the streetscape of a southeastern Michigan city in a simulation scenario. The challenge, Becker says, was not capturing the details of the streetscape – like trees, fire hydrants, or parking spaces – but the geometry of the road. In that instance, Mechanical Simulation tapped another company to obtain accurate road scanning.

“When you’re driving your car, you think this road is flat, but no, it’s not. There’s a little bit of crowning in it … maybe one degree, maybe a half degree,” Becker says. “In vehicle development, things of that nature matter. One degree will definitely impact how the vehicle performs and what it feels like.”

Replicating those real-life details that affect driving is a challenge, according to Mahendra Muli, director of marketing and new business development for dSPACE, a German-based company with offices in Wixom.

dSPACE offers OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, and tech companies a full spectrum of simulation products, enabling engineers and others to test everything from components, such as powertrains and sensors, to the full vehicle. Its simulation products can be used on a desktop or through the cloud, enabling hundreds of computers to analyze issues.

dSPACE's sensory realistic simulation.
dSPACE’s sensory realistic simulation.

Muli says the company’s simulation products help customers solve problems on a regular basis. One of dSPACE’s OEM customers was able to remove 80 errors from an electronic component by testing on one of dSPACE’s simulation products.

“If errors had gone into development and caused a recall, who knows how many millions of dollars that would have cost or how many recalls there might have been,” Muli says. “It’s a day-to-day occurrence, eliminating the errors.”

Mahendra Muli, director of marketing and new business development for dSPACE.
Mahendra Muli, director of marketing and new business development for dSPACE.

He notes that virtual products are important for the automotive industry, saving costs and eliminating risks associated with real-world testing.

“There are all these types of risks associated that can’t be comprehended or validated with real-life tests or with robots,” Muli says.

AVL also faces some of those same challenges in developing hardware and software simulation products for a variety of customers, including OEMs, Tier One suppliers, and tech startups. The company’s U.S. headquarters are in Plymouth, with offices in Silicon Valley and a tech center in southern California.

William Rotramel, director of vehicle integration for AVL/US, says one of the biggest ADAS challenges is the development and accurate simulation of perception systems and the high complexity of the environment in which they operate. There are millions of situations in the real world of driving that can impact sensors, including buildings, traffic, streets, and weather.

“Sensors have so many possibilities of being obscured by environmental factors, like fog or dust, that can affect them,” Rotramel says. “That is a challenge all of us in the industry face and we’re trying to find solutions.”

William Rotramel, director of vehicle integration for AVL/US.
William Rotramel, director of vehicle integration for AVL/US.

AVL’s software products are typically used in desktop situations early in the testing process. In a full vehicle testing scenario, the process becomes a combination of software simulations and hardware in an AVL or customer lab environment.

One of AVL’s newest autonomous vehicle testing products is its AVL Driving Cube, which places a real vehicle on a chassis dynamometer and uses virtual driving scenarios to test sensors, control systems, and actuators for validation.

Taylor Frey, AVL marketing manager; William Rotramel, AVL director of vehicle integration; and Fred Jacquelin, AVL chief engineer gather around a model of AVL's Driving Cube.
Taylor Frey, AVL marketing manager; William Rotramel, AVL director of vehicle integration; and Fred Jacquelin, AVL chief engineer gather around a model of AVL’s Driving Cube.

Across the board, these simulation products are providing a new level of efficiency in testing. What previously could take months to solve can now be resolved in a matter of a few days or less.

“If you’re two minutes into a simulation and the solutions are bad, you just kill the simulation,” Becker says. “You can tweak and start the simulation again.”

Becker says the rise of virtual testing environments also reflects a larger change in the way auto manufacturers work.

“OEMs are hiring more software engineers than mechanical engineers, because the average vehicle now has 100,000 lines of code in it,” he says. “Your car is a computer.”