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First look: Ford is using this simulator to speed product development

Dearborn — It was a sweltering day in southeast Michigan Wednesday, but snow was falling at Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn Development Center — virtual snow on a virtual highway, that is.

Changing weather conditions is just one capability of the automaker's new advanced vehicle simulator, which was commissioned earlier this year and now is being put to use in Ford's product development process. 

The Blue Oval has been using driving simulators for years — for example, a full-motion platform simulator in North Carolina that the company's performance division uses to replicate practicing on different tracks. 

But the simulator that was recently installed at the Dearborn Development Center is more advanced and geared toward mainstream products, according to Ford — and it has the benefit of being closer to home for the engineers now using it to improve the company's product development process.

"Simulation and simulators at Ford have really given us the ability to enhance our development process in all aspects," Louis Jamail, core methods and simulation supervisor at Ford, said during a demonstration of the technology Wednesday.

Simulation "gives us the ability to not only use our test cars more efficiently, but we can test all the 'what if' scenarios, the things that you may not be able to do in the physical world," he said. "We can run hundreds and thousands of those scenarios, both on simulations offline and then let the driver experience it. ... It gives us the ability to look at what do our customers want, and try to react quicker than just building a physical prototype."

The simulator itself is made by a company called VI-grade. Jamail declined to say how much Ford paid for it but believes the company will reap cost savings that more than cover the investment. 

The equipment is situated in front of a screen that provides approximately 270-degree views of whatever road, real or fake, engineers want to test a vehicle on that day. The driver climbs into a vehicle cab — on Wednesday it was a Ford Explorer, though it can be switched out for other models.

The unit's interior roughly matches that of a real-life vehicle, complete with a seat belt, steering wheel, and gas and brake pedals. Drivers then take the simulator through whatever scenarios they want, with data from the simulation continuously looping back to the adjoining control room. There, employees can log and record every drive — for example, to analyze the time between getting cut off in traffic to when adaptive cruise control prompts the vehicle to slow down in response.

Wednesday's demonstration included a drive down a three-lane highway, then on a replica of the Ford Proving Grounds in Dearborn — complete with the bumps the track has in real life.

Another demonstration took the driver down a highway with traffic at nighttime and used advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, features such as adaptive cruise control that prompted the vehicle to slow down as it approached a police car in the simulation. 

“As the driver puts in an input, the computer translates that through the vehicle model and basically sends a signal to this platform to reproduce reality for you," explained Jamail.

The advantages of incorporating simulation into product development are numerous, employees said. It allows engineers to test scenarios that are too expensive or or for which it wouldn't make sense to build prototypes.

It can help them identify improvements and fixes for mid-cycle adjustments on existing models, and more quickly try out different vehicle configurations. It helps the company avoid spending money on things that won't work. And it adds a human element to a process that previously might have amounted to lines and graphs on a computer screen.

It also saves time.

Ford, for example, was able to fast-track the development and launch of its new Maverick compact pickup truck in part thanks to simulation. Engineers completed part of the development for the truck on the Ford Performance simulator in North Carolina. 

“We were able to change and create a better twist-beam rear suspension for the Maverick using the simulator. And we didn’t build twist beams, because it’s expensive to build new suspensions," said Jamail. “We could go through many changes that we would never be able to do without major fabrication, work and lost time.”

Simulation also was used to help shape the vision for the Mustang Mach-E and the F-150 Lightning electric vehicles.

“We can align on what a vehicle or feature is, much better here than in a PowerPoint presentation,” said Robert Rieveley, a technical expert on simulation on Ford's ADAS team.

It's helpful for developing global products, employees said, because they can virtually test products on Ford's test tracks in Europe, for example. And the technology enables a new way for the company to incorporate consumer feedback. 

“We’re using this," said Rieveley, "to put the voice of the customer in our virtual development process much further upfront."

Twitter: @JGrzelewski