It could cut development time significantly, but is it as effective as real-world testing?

Volkswagen breaks new ground with its foray into the virtual world as an avenue to test its new driver assistance systems faster while also reducing expenses. Is it a double-edged sword, though?

As automakers worldwide make leaps and bounds towards a brave new world of automation, green energy and efficiency, German manufacturer Volkswagen set about trying a new way of testing its driver assistance systems that will be part of the new I.D. lineup of vehicles. Lengthy real-world tests where prototypes are taken out on the open road or on test facilities will be a thing of the past, thinks Volkswagen, who wants to replace all of that with virtual simulations. They should, in theory, be programmed to feature as many scenarios as needed to get the systems through their testing phases.

The process to move testing from the real-world to a computer-generated virtual one is complicated, but Volkswagen is already trying out the idea with virtual parking simulations where all the parameters can be altered to suit the needs of those conducting the experiments. This all sounds great, but can computer-generated simulations, regardless of computing power and intricacy, really provide the same randomness that actual testing on the open road gives? Will cars that go on sale with systems that went through virtual testing be as well prepared as those that had a bigger chunk of their testing done on the roads? Volkswagen did not officially say they plan to eliminate real testing from the procedure of introducing new driving assistance systems, so we have to wait and see.

Read on to learn more about Volkswagen’s new virtual testing and more

Why it Matters

Volkswagen's Looks to Build Automated Systems with Virtual Test Drives
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Volkswagen is busy developing new and innovative solutions to better develop upcoming driver assistance features that will be available soon on production-ready cars from the I.D. family.

The company wants to cut on development time and costs by moving much of the testing phase of such systems from the real world and put them in virtual reality.

This should help the systems ”learn” faster and, based on these experiments, Volkswagen will build a database of information that will be readily available for future systems.

“We are continually developing Volkswagen vehicles and taking innovations into all segments,” says Board Member for Development Dr. Frank Welsch. “We are building on our strong global development team and grasping all the opportunities offered by digitalization. This also includes virtual validation. We are developing this technology for our work as it will make for faster and more efficient development processes.”

Once computer-generated virtual testing is fully implemented, it will allow engineers and experts to put the systems through hours and hours of continuous testing without having to build a single running and driving prototype. As such, development time will be shorter and while also making it possible to test more possible scenarios. On top of that, the systems can be then connected to one another to be able to share what they’ve ”learned” during the testing phases. This means that any new system that will come along the way will not start from scratch, already having a base of proven scenarios and information from the previous iterations’ tests and results with customers.

Volkswagen's Looks to Build Automated Systems with Virtual Test Drives
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Volkswagen states that, currently, assistance systems are being tested using a hardware-based approach by connecting components to test rigs via data interfaces. As the number of systems and their functions grows, so should the amount of testing and that translates into more money and more time. Validating new systems through the means of virtual reality will see real-life testing play second-fiddle.

The virtual validation software in question —“SimFAS” —is being co-developed by experts from Group IT and Technical Development. In the long term, they want to be able to generate any driving situation which may be required.

Within the virtual world, the systems will work just like they would on an actual car driving down an actual world, allowing engineers to locate flaws that would become apparent in real-life testing.

The way in which Volkswagen plans to create a database of information based on the progress of these systems in the virtual simulations is by connecting them to the Group IT cloud. There, the resulting database can be used to compare data from various systems, look at successful and failed scenarios and many more. The statement released by Volkswagen also states that ”the first application simulates thousands of individual Parking lots with freely definable parameters.” The system’s A.I. then memorizes the successful attempts and the way it got there, which means it will know how to act in similar situations in the future. The key here is, obviously, to put the system through a huge variety of situations so that it knows multiple ways to get out of multiple situations, depending on certain parameters (weather, the speed of the vehicle, temperature, state of the car, etc.).

Volkswagen is working with the same idea in other areas, too. They want, for example, to save extra costs by analyzing new prototypes in the virtual world, before making full-scale cars. The models will have all the aspects present on a car, including the interior, the engine, the underpinnings, all ready to be analyzed and thoroughly assessed before a potential green light is given for the car to be built.

What could go wrong

Volkswagen's Looks to Build Automated Systems with Virtual Test Drives
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A shift to virtual validation sounds like a good idea, but the process isn’t simple. For starters, you need a very complicated computer-generated simulation for it to produce results that can vouch for real-world application. In other words, if the simulation isn’t detailed enough to produce realistic situations, the results engineers get won’t be of any good.

We’ve already seen that real-life testing can go wrong or that systems already implemented on road cars can fail.

We all remember the chilling fatal crash in which an autonomous Uber vehicle rammed a cyclist because the A.I. chose to ignore him, wrongly guessing it is something like a plastic bottle on the ground and not an actual person on a bicycle. We’ve reported on the crash back in May, and it stands as a harsh lesson that automakers must learn and which should make them work harder to develop safer systems.

This is, in theory, where the whole virtual part comes in. As stated, the systems can be tested for longer periods of time – days or even weeks non-stop – which makes it possible to put them through more scenarios than you are able to in the real world. The question that arises is simple: will those scenarios echo the real world and its randomness enough to be a proper replacement for the current way of testing? The answer is that the technology is still making baby steps, but the steps that are being made are in the right direction.

We all have to wait and give it time to develop. There will be a time when virtual machines will be advanced enough to simulate the world in a way that’s so accurate that the results will make the systems better in the real world than they would’ve been if they’ve undergone tests IN the real world.

Further reading

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