PLYMOUTH, MICH. — Cars whoosh by from the front and rear. Potholes jar the body. The vehicle buzzes and hums.
It is a tension-filled trip. But it also is a virtual one, an animated journey of the mind courtesy of automotive supplier Johnson Controls Inc.
The firm, one of the world's largest makers of interior systems, invested $3.5 million to open its comfort engineering center in July. At the heart of the center, one of the world's first driving simulators shakes into action.
The simulator re-enacts the sights, sounds, forces and vibrations of the road, according to a description in a JCI news release. But it also is a virtual-reality product-research tool that, for the first time, puts a driver behind the wheel of a car years before that model will be sold in dealerships.
``We were interested in simulating the driving environment in a real-world way,'' said JCI comfort center manager Kuntal Thakurta from JCI's automotive headquarters in Plymouth, Mich. ``Traditionally, studying comfort has been highly subjective. This was the best way to objectively learn how to make the car more comfortable.''
Increasingly, companies inside and outside the automotive industry are turning to virtual-reality tools to assist in product design. Dana Corp., a maker of axles and driveshafts, uses it to build entire plants. Deere & Co. designs construction equipment with it.
The technique, used to re-create the visceral feel of a product without producing it, cuts down design time, said Dean Hering, senior engineer with Research Triangle Institute, a virtual-reality consultant in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
``Virtual reality is used everywhere, from concepting to prototyping to manufacturing to product launch,'' Hering said. ``It gives you the ability to have everyone look at the same product before it actually exists.''
Hering's work at RTI has taken him to companies such as IBM Corp., which used virtual reality for a new hand-held portable computer/stereo. For that product, customers looking through a head-mounted display in a darkened booth answered questions about product features shown on the screen, Hering said.
The technology has battled misperceptions, he said. And the cost can be daunting, anywhere from $50,000-$150,000 for one project and spiking upwards of that to set up a permanent virtual-reality center, he said.
``There's a perception that [virtual reality] is a very expensive toy,'' Hering said. ``But it all depends how a company uses it.''
Those uses vary across the map, even within a single industry. Automakers such as DaimlerChrysler AG and AB Volvo apply it to develop a virtual car, where all features can be evaluated by the simulated glow of a computer-generated image.
Companies such as AutoPacific Inc., a consumer-research firm, prod automakers and parts suppliers to use virtual reality before a vehicle is produced. For consumer feedback, no substitute exists for seeing, touching and sitting in an actual vehicle, said Eric Noble, marketing director of Tustin, Calif.-based AutoPacific.
The tools do not allow better design but can provide a stylist with more choices than does a static, physical prototype, he said.
``Virtual reality is a lot like a microwave oven,'' Noble said. ``You don't know how badly you need it until you have one. In the last six months, we're starting to see uses for virtual reality that we could only dream about before.''
At JCI, virtual reality evolved from the company's displeasure with conventional consumer-research design tools. For car interiors, a good number of which are molded from plastic, a jury of seven or eight consumers would rate different features of a prototype for comfort, Thakurta said.
But before virtual reality, the company could not get a clear signal on consumer preferences until they actually drove the car.
At the same time, the supplier was finding that comfort was playing a larger role not only in consumer buying but in the health of the driver. Road noise at a high frequency and bone-jarring vibrations, over time, could affect kidneys, lungs and eyes, Thakurta said. In the short term, they cause blurring, nausea and body fatigue, he added.
``It might play a subtle part in a consumer's decision to buy a different model next time,'' he said.
JCI's 3,200-square-foot center attempts to address those issues, as well as the workaday problems with dimly lit instrument-panel displays and hard-to-reach cupholders or radio buttons.
The driving simulator, sitting in a sunken tub, is surrounded by projection screens to its front, right and left sides, and rear. JCI engineers create differing driving environments, from a rock-strewn country road to a busy city street.
A wraparound audio system generates road, wind, tire and engine noise and provides sensations to the steering wheel and brakes.
The simulator includes a car's interior buck — the whole interior, from the dashboard to the rear seat — surrounded by a truncated metal frame. Instrument-panel and steering-column controls can be adjusted, as can the seat mechanism.
Currently, JCI can simulate the interior of a small car, midsize vehicle and sport utility vehicle. The company would like to add to those basic models over time, Thakurta said.
The vehicle also rocks on a six-axis, hydraulic table that replicates road motions and vibrations. The table can be set for a variety of road conditions ranging from excellent to pockmarked.
The supplier now is working on more than 30 customer interior programs using the simulator, Thakurta said. No one else in the industry has attempted the firm's approach, he said.
``We feel like the Lone Ranger of comfort,'' Thakurta said.
But others use the technology differently. Dana Corp., a Toledo, Ohio-based maker of engine and powertrain parts, has set up a virtual-reality center at its Technical Resource Park in Ottawa Lake, Mich.
There, the company uses 10-foot-high projection screens and three-dimensional visualization tools to build virtual plants. Dana can simulate a life-size drill press or conveyor system, walk through the placement of equipment or show a product moving down an assembly line, said Ivan Stretten, manager of virtual engineering services for Dana's Advanced Technology Research Group.
``It gives people more insight into design,'' Stretten said. ``The end goal is to design better plants with more efficient processes. We want to eliminate mistakes in a digital form instead of after we lay down brick and mortar.''
Already, Dana has used virtual reality to build an engine-systems plant in Villanova, Spain, that broke ground in February. The plant, for Dana's Perfect Circle division, includes production of thermoset cam covers.
Virtual prototyping also is enticing designers, even for normally mundane areas such as electrical systems. Software manufacturer Analogy Inc. of Beaverton, Ore., has introduced a new package that can simulate the electrical wiring system across an entire vehicle.
Manipulated by 3D computer-aided-design software, the SaberHarness software helps designers determine how thick to make plastic insulation, and where electrical connectors will be needed.
Virtual simulations eliminate the need for physical prototypes, saving considerable time and cost, said Kenneth Waichunas, regional sales manager for Analogy. Traditionally, designers make 20-30 prototype models, build another 10-20 second-generation prototypes and then make 50-100 final prototypes, he said.
``A lot of automotive people come from the mechanical side, and they like touchy-feely products,'' Waichunas said. ``But when you get to the electrical side, the products are not as romantic to look at. But, even there, virtual reality has gotten to the point of greater acceptance.''