Ford’s newest simulator might look like a thrill ride amusement park guests would spend hours waiting in line to experience, but the technology has already saved the company time – up to a year, from greenlighting of a program to proof of concept – and money in the development of the F-150 Lightning, Maverick and Mustang Mach-E.
The new simulator, which opened in February, is the next generation of the advanced racing simulator at the Ford Performance technical center in Concord, North Carolina. Located at the driving dynamics lab in Dearborn, a few hundred yards from the Ford test track, it uses artificial intelligence and terabytes of vehicle performance, road and weather data to provide drivers better immersion and feedback, contributing to improved customer experiences with advanced driver-assist systems and other features. The technology enables teams to experience the vehicle as a customer would, rather than as a series of graphs and numbers.
“Our company vision is to streamline our processes and collaborate quickly around delivering what our customers want,” said Louis Jamail, driving dynamics core supervisor. “In the past, many extra months would be taken to build actual prototype parts and vehicles, slowing down our efficiency and limiting our scope. Now, we can investigate many more ‘what-if’ scenarios without fabricating one single part or prototype vehicle, working to deliver our vision with even greater efficiency.”
From the cab of a Ford Explorer prototype, drivers can use the simulator to test various configurations, reducing the number of additional prototypes early on and speeding the development cycle by allowing for changes on the fly. The system can re-create numerous road surfaces, including each of Ford’s proving ground environments from around the world. Off-roading, heavy rain and snow conditions will soon be added. It can also replicate cold weather and extreme heat scenarios. Non-Ford locations available in the software include Grattan Raceway, where Michigan State Police conduct vehicle dynamics testing.
Outside the simulator testing area, where multiple HVAC systems serve to keep the equipment cool, is a large control room featuring several monitors displaying a graphic representation of the vehicle with an overhead view in select environments, as well as a screen displaying an instrument cluster showing vitals of the testing.
The new Dearborn simulator means only minor adjustments and fine-tuning are needed later in the development process. In the case of the all-new F-150 Lightning, it enabled team members to work through towing and hauling variables early in the process, with tuning parameters determined well before the first prototype was ever built.
“We can do a month’s worth of work in a week,” said Jamail, who expects this simulation technology to become the industry standard over the next three to five years. It will certainly play an integral role in the development of the company’s next generation of electric vehicles.
Robert Rieveley, vehicle dynamics development engineer, said the simulator is a very immersive and collaborative space. It also serves to enhance safety in the development process by creating risks that put driver-assist technology to the test. “If a crash or something else happens, we just have to reload the simulator,” he said.
Three employees selected by @FordOnline recently had the opportunity to experience the simulator. Lifestyle attributes engineer Chelsey Revita was impressed with its accuracy and responsiveness.
At one point in the drive, she had the vehicle up to a simulated speed of 120 mph. “It felt really smooth,” said Revita. “I didn’t even notice that I was going that fast. I was jerking the steering wheel a bit and it was reacting well. You can feel all the bumps you’re going over and all the changes in the road.”
Amol Borkar and Derek Jolly both welcome the instant feedback the simulator brings.
“I work on pickup boxes and tailgates, where we need this kind of data and it takes weeks to get it, but here it’s instantaneous,” said Borkar, a core engineer. “This is all built in, and you don’t have to start from scratch each time. I can see so many efficiency applications coming out of this, and not just for North America. The value of this tool is limitless.”
Jolly, an interior structural system and foundation engineer, believes his team may benefit indirectly from the simulator, which he expects will help deliver a higher-fidelity attribute rate for parts from other teams to his, while eliminating the wait for different gateways in the development cycle to attempt changes in rates for testing. “This is like on-demand results for what you’re trying to study,” he said.