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 company, one of the world's largest makers of interior systems, invested $3.5 million to open its comfort engineering center in July 1998. At the heart of the center, one of the world's first driving simulators shakes into action.
The simulator reenacts the sights, sounds, forces and vibrations of the road, according to a description in a Johnson Controls news release. But it is also 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 the comfort center's manager, Kuntal Thakurta from Johnson Controls' automotive headquarters in Plymouth, Mich. '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 recreate 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.
The technology has battled misperceptions, Hering said. And the cost can be daunting, anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 for one project and spiking up from 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 on how a company uses it.'
Those uses vary across the map, even within a single industry. Automakers such as DaimlerChrysler and AB Volvo apply it to develop a virtual car, where all features can be evaluated by the simulated glow of a computer screen.
At Johnson Controls, virtual reality evolved from the company's displeasure with conventional consumer-research design tools. For car interiors, a good deal of which is 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 vision, nausea and body fatigue, he added.
Johnson Controls' 3,200-square-foot center tries 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 at its front, rear and right and left sides. Johnson Controls engineers create differing driving environments, from a rock-strewn country road to a busy city street.
A wrap-around audio system generates road, wind, tire and engine noise and provides sensations to the steering wheel and brakes.
The simulator itself includes a car's interior buck - the whole interior, from the instrument panel to the rear seat - surrounded by a truncated metal frame. Instrument-panel and steering-column controls can be adjusted, as can the seat mechanism.
REPLICATES THE ROAD
Currently, Johnson Controls can simulate the interior of a small car, a mid-sized vehicle and a sport-utility. The company would like to add to those basic models over time, Thakurta said.
The vehicle also rocks on a six-axis hydraulic shaker table that replicates road motions and vibrations. The table can be set for a variety of road conditions ranging from excellent to pock-marked.
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 company's approach, he said: 'We feel like the Lone Ranger of comfort.'
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 3-D visualization tools to build virtual plants. Dana can simulate a life-sized 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.'