The automotive industry has always experienced evolution, from the birth of the assembly line to the introduction of computer chips for monitoring a car’s most basic functions. Despite the many advances since the first automobiles were introduced in the late 1800s, it’s doubtful that Henry Ford could have envisioned the latest major shift in the industry—the move to digital assets as an integral part of design, testing, and sales.
Transforming the auto industry with digital assets
Virtual cars don’t replace clay models, but rather augment the design and sales processes in ways never before possible. Clay models have been a staple of the auto industry for decades, with good reason—there’s nothing like being able to envision the physical vehicle, to run your hand along its lines. But clay models are one-offs with limited use, whereas virtual models can provide unlimited options at every phase of manufacturing, including sales.
Through a VR experience of a digital car, a customer can gain insights in a way that clay models can’t provide. They can take a virtual drive through the streets of a busy city or the tree-lined lanes of the countryside. They can check out the level of visibility through the windshield, press buttons on the console, adjust the rearview mirror, and even change the radio station.
And best of all, with VR, the time from design to sales can be greatly reduced. Customer feedback gained at the design phase gives you the ability to dream up and try out different options in the virtual space, long before committing to engineering work on implementation.
Burak Soehmelioglu of BMW Group, for example, finds that with VR experiences, the entry level for non-experts is much lower. Anyone can enter the experience—anyone from engineers to salespeople, and even customers—and tell the designers what they think.
Such experiences are made possible with real-time rendering in Unreal Engine. While it was initially developed as a game engine, the quality of Unreal Engine’s real-time graphics now approaches that of offline renderers, making it a viable tool for collaborative design, configurators in the showroom, and promotional media.
Unreal Engine also includes tools for “gamifying” a presentation, with clickable options and logic-driven programming that can create just about any kind of virtual automotive experience.
On October 20, BMW Group and Ferrari got together on video series The Pulse for a discussion on virtual cars and digital IP. The Pulse is hosted by Epic Games, the creators of Unreal Engine.
One of the most common uses for virtual cars is configurators, where customers choose options and their customized car appears before their very eyes. Body paint color and type, interior colors and materials, wheel style, headlights—instead of imagining what these options will look like, the customer can see the car from all angles, and change the options at the click of a button.
Configurators started appearing on websites some years ago, with the car on-screen. Taking it a step further, pioneers like BMW have VR showrooms in their dealerships that give customers an immersive customization experience.
Buying a car can be an exciting experience, and advances in real-time graphics—such as ray-tracing technology for true reflections and accurate soft shadows—have opened up new opportunities for increasing buyer satisfaction. For example, after a buyer has finished choosing options, the system can produce a custom, photorealistic video of that very car zooming through a picturesque environment. This gives the buyer the opportunity to show the video of “my new car” to friends and family before the vehicle is delivered.
For a brand like Ferrari, where customers expect a certain experience from the car, using Unreal Engine is all about delivering the best possible purchase process. Ferrari’s cars are built to order, so showing the customer how it will look is an important part of the sales cycle. “It's all about giving justice to the product,” says Davide Ferrari, Car Configurator IT Product Owner and Technology Innovation Architect at Ferrari.
He adds that the car maker’s business model necessitated the move to virtual 3D models and real-time rendering some time ago. “We have millions of combinations,” Ferrari says. “Having everything premade was not possible anymore, and pre-rendering every possible combination isn’t viable.”
Instead, Ferrari uses Unreal Engine to produce a rendered car with exactly the customer’s specifications, so the buyer is able to enjoy his or her custom vehicle while waiting for delivery.
Real-time graphics also lend themselves well to collaborative design. Engineers at opposite ends of the globe can get together in virtual reality to discuss options and make changes.
BMW Group started their first VR project five years ago as a means of improving design. In VR, the design department could see and experience a future car—one that hit the streets several years later—and bring that same experience to stakeholders outside the design department. The advantage of VR is that it gives decision makers the ability to see and experience new features and functionalities as a customer would, and give feedback during early design stages that enrich and improve the design.
Developers of autonomous vehicles have discovered that virtual cars can provide them with thousands of hours of testing before incurring the expense of building out the car itself. Virtual tests are controllable, repeatable, and safer than physical tests.
But what if you could combine physical aspects of driving with virtual environments and data? To this end, WMG at the University of Warwick has built a state-of-the-art simulator, where researchers drive real vehicles inside a synthetic environment displayed on 360-degree screens around them. The system provides a level of repeatability not possible in a real-world environment while giving researchers the means to test an autonomous vehicle’s responses in an infinite variety of scenarios.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of virtual cars and real-time graphics is the numerous marketing opportunities that digital IP offers. Since the 3D model is already built and ready to go, a virtual car can be used in a commercial, placed in a film or game, launched at a completely virtual event, or can even form the basis for casting a physical, collectible miniature.
The possibilities for virtual cars are endless, especially when paired with Unreal Engine for engaging and immersive real-time experiences.
Epic Games continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible with digital vehicles through Automotive Build events, webinars, and video series. Check out the replay of Epic Games on The Pulse, where industry innovators at BMW Group and Ferrari discuss their uses for virtual cars and the future of digital IP.