What happens if you are driving along and someone spills coffee in your lap? How would you react at the wheel if someone was being sick on the back seat? How would your car react if the weather suddenly dropped to -20C?
These are all question being addressed by Jaguar Land Rover as it develops new models – but not in the real world.
Cutting-edge research and development is at the heart of JLR’s plan to prolong its incredible success of late – and using virtual reality is now playing a vital part.
Testing in a computer-generated world – which JLR does at its Virtual Reality Centre, in Gaydon, and at Warwick Manufacturing Group, in Coventry, it enables work to take place before a car is completed, meaning it can get out to market sooner.
It can take as many as 30,000 tests before a car is passed as safe to drive, so the facility has the capacity to drive down the environmental impact by reducing, or potentially eliminating, the need for physical prototypes.
The car giant is now leading a government scheme to invest £10 million in universities to develop virtual simulation technologies to help improve and accelerate the car design process, including at the University of Warwick.
Some of the work examines driver reactions to a range of encounters – from a low sun to a stomach-churning smell, as well as more technical aspects of the car.
Director of vehicle engineering at Jaguar Land Rover Mark Stanton said: “When I first started, the only way we would be able to test the defrosting system in a car would be to go to the Arctic Circle with a group of engineers, test it and wait for problems to occur.
“But we’ve moved on from that and now we can create our own virtual Northern Sweden in our wind tunnel. It’s another thing we can do in the virtual world.”
The investment in virtual reality consists of five projects covering 80 per cent of the research, including an attempt to exactly imitate the driving and passenger experience in a completely digital environment.
There is also complex analysis of vehicles and high performance computing work taking place.
JLR is following in the footsteps of Ford, which developed its 3D CAVE – Computer Automated Virtual Environment – to investigate digital models from multiple angles.
Mr Stanton said that this was part of a drive towards engineering excellence – but had the capacity to improve the firm’s bottom line by reducing the number of vehicles used in crash-testing.
He said: “If you do it right, ultimately it will contribute to the bottom line, but that is not the motivation. To me the motivation is the quality of the product, and getting the product right first time. It is about design and engineering – if we do that properly then it will make money.”
He added: “The way it has always worked is you build an expensive prototype which will be smashed into a wall, and do that many times. But if you can understand the car in a virtual world then you don’t have to do a lot of those crash tests. The utopia is to do them in virtual reality until the final crash test.”
Mr Stanton said this sort of work has become more commonplace to tailor cars for individual markets around the world.
He explained: “There is a different tune to vehicles in China, because of the way the cars are driven, the brakes are different. Also, the driving environment is different – we like sporty driving, whereas they are more relaxed, and there is more congestion over there.”
Changes are made to cars on a daily basis thanks to the simulation exercises.
Alan Chalmers, professor of visualisation at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), said virtual reality testing has started to examine all five senses.
He said: “We look at the high fidelity virtual experience using all of your senses – including sight, touch and smell. For example we do simulations in bright light, which can take account of when the sun comes from different angles, so you can see the impact on the driver.
“It is not only that we can understand these things – we can experience it. The the feel, the smell, everything.
“For example, driving along with a car full of kids and one of them is sick in the back of the car.
"Another example is what would happen if you are driving and someone spills hot coffee on your lap.
"How are people going to cope with that? We can test and find out."