When Volvo developed a video of its Concept You car introduced at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, the company didn't need to wait until the car was built.
Instead, it produced a movie with technology from Autodesk using a virtual car. The use of computer-generated images by the automotive sector is not new. But the technologies are becoming so sophisticated that car companies are relying more on virtual cars to substitute for physical prototypes in marketing, allowing them to cut significantly the time it takes to begin publicizing a vehicle. The technologies give potential customers a chance to touch and interact virtually with numerous versions of a vehicle before it's built.
It used to be that the virtual models weren't convincing, but "recent advances in CGI make it more photorealistic" so it's often impossible to tell the difference between a model and the real thing, said Joanne Stansberry, who has managed computer-generated imagery at Chevrolet.
Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive division of Strategic Vision, a consulting and research company in San Diego, said: "Every car company is looking at these types of technologies" and how they'll be used in the future.
"It really is going to be an inexpensive way to better understand consumer choices and start preliminary ad campaigns," he said.