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FEATURE: Cars enter the Matrix as testing blends the real and virtual

Joseph Flaig

A car in the simulation suite at Millbrook Proving Ground. Hybrid techniques are blending physical and virtual testing (Credit: Millbrook)
A car in the simulation suite at Millbrook Proving Ground. Hybrid techniques are blending physical and virtual testing (Credit: Millbrook)

“If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Released in 1999, The Matrix introduced a generation to virtual reality (VR), simulation and artificial intelligence – alongside the philosophical conundrums that arise when dealing with such heady topics.

Two decades later, we now live in a much more virtual world. A large portion of our lives is spent online, algorithms track our every interest and desire, and VR headsets transport us to new and impossible worlds. The definition of ‘real’ is being tested more than ever before.

Something similar is happening in car testing, a vital part of any vehicle’s development. As manufacturers introduce autonomy and greater connectivity to their models, testing specialists have responded with new techniques that blend the line between physical and virtual.

German firm IPG Automotive, for example, combines the two by running cars on an open airfield, where the only ‘roads’ exist in on-board software. The approach allows safe and repeatable testing of active lane keeping technology. Austrian company AVL takes a different approach, running car powertrains on a static rig while inputting real-world testing loads from simulated environments. The technique helps assess ‘driveability’ and other parameters.

Now, Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire has revealed perhaps the most ambitious blend of real and virtual so far. Last month the automotive testing specialist unveiled its simulation suite, combining a digital twin of its extensive tracks with detailed vehicle modelling software in what it calls a ‘vehicle-in-the-loop ecosystem’.

At the suite’s centre sits a platform, upon which cars are placed. A wraparound projector system surrounds the vehicle, displaying a virtual environment that the car ‘drives’ through. The system goes beyond just two dimensions, however, thanks to a radar rig which is connected to the cars. A special tracking system generates targets for the radar, simulating the presence of physical objects. Steering actuators turn under the wheels as the vehicle navigates the virtual world.

'Drivers' can be in the cars, but the facility has a large focus on autonomy (Credit: Millbrook)

'Drivers' can be in the cars, but the facility has a large focus on autonomy (Credit: Millbrook)

The digital twin of the proving ground provides simulations of vehicle dynamics, terrain, traffic, sensors, networks and connectivity, and actual track results can be replayed within the simulator. Unlike the physical world, operators can pick and choose desired environmental factors to include in a test, which the car reacts to through its in-built sensors.

“We can change the environment, we can change the weather, we can change the road condition and so on,” says Dr Amir Soltani, founder and managing director of KAN Engineering. “So we can repeat the same scenario, again and again… with exactly the same situation in terms of the road condition, in terms of the weather, condition, light and so on. Normally in the real world it's very hard to repeat a test in exactly the same environment and road condition, but in simulation you can do it as much as you want.”

He adds: “It saves a lot of time, cost and gives us a very flexible environment.”

‘Augmented testing’

A ‘driver’ could sit in the car during testing, but the suite has a significant focus on autonomous vehicles. Although self-driving software is often trialled in virtual environments to develop and prove technology like machine vision, the Millbrook approach allows testing of the entire vehicle – not just its programming. Manufacturer algorithms can be entered into the system as pure software, or linked to the engine control unit [ECU] or real actuators.

“You can test an autonomous system on its own in full virtual, but actually putting it into a vehicle, into the ECU, working with things like headlights, wipers, radio, infotainment, you start to bring it together for the first time. And then you're not necessarily out on a track turning wheel, exposing things to risk – especially if it's the first time you've run it in a real car rather than just on the desk,” says Peter Stoker, chief engineer for connected and autonomous vehicles at Millbrook.

This ‘augmented testing’ approach could be particularly useful as vehicles are taught how to deal with collision scenarios. After the huge investment and development time involved, the last thing manufacturers want is for a software mistake to result in a physical accident.

“I don’t think anyone would be happy on your first day, and you bash into something,” says Stoker. “I'd much rather have a vehicle encounter a virtual fuel tanker on a hill than a real one, to be honest.”

Hybrid approach

Alongside fully autonomous systems, the simulation suite can aid the design, development and testing of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), connected vehicles and conventional vehicles. Other uses include checking road safety, developing artificial intelligence, testing ‘infotainment’ packages and validating intelligent energy systems on electric powertrains for battery and thermal management.

Millbrook’s 5G connectivity, installed in 2019 as part of an Airspan Networks-led testbed, lets the team blend virtual and physical elements in new and experimental ways.

“Bring the connectivity into the simulation and connect the real world into the simulation – or bring the simulation into the real world using augmented reality and virtual reality,” says Dr Soltani, who developed the simulation suite. “We managed to send and receive the data from the mixed reality, from the real-world test, right into the simulation and vice versa. And it opened up a lot of new opportunities and new use cases that you won’t see in pure simulation environments.”

As autonomy and connectivity development accelerates, Millbrook is confident that its approach will be in high demand in the years to come. The team is busy correlating its virtual system with the real world and preparing for the suite’s first customers.

“The long term nature of the industry is to look at certification by simulation, because the scenarios, the mileage, everything else, as Amir said, is just too big to handle physically. So there has to be a way of looking at certifying these control systems using simulation, but grounded in as best reality as you can,” says Stoker.

In the breakneck pace of change in modern society, it can often feel like we are living in a sci-fi reality. The future of car testing is following a similar trajectory.  


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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