Carmakers spend a fortune on prototypes for new models. Such mock-ups are not seen by outsiders, unless photos dribble out on a motoring blog, but can each cost as much as $1m.
Now, however, these secret test bed vehicles could be on the endangered list as manufacturers shift towards digital simulation methods.
The Jaguar XE saloon, which started shipping in the UK last month, was produced without using any prototypes during the aerodynamic engineering process — a first for a mainstream model.
Jaguar Land Rover, its maker, now wants to go further. It is seeking to eliminate all physical prototypes from the early development process by 2020, even though that would mean ordering costly factory tooling on the back of computer modelling alone. “Everyone’s going the same way,” says Elliot Hemes, a JLR vehicle engineer.
Computer-aided engineering has been increasingly used in car manufacturing over the past 10 years, aided by greater processing power. The simulations that it enables replace a physical testing process that is seen as expensive, time-consuming and inaccurate.
The car industry spends $10bn a year on building prototypes, according to Exa, the US-based simulation software company that worked with JLR on the XE. General Motors built about 170 prototypes and drove a million miles during the test phase for its 2013 Chevrolet Malibu saloon.
Carmakers are under cost pressure elsewhere in their businesses, meanwhile, because of the demand to reduce emissions, add “connected” technology and come up with advanced autonomous-driving features.
Exa says that carmakers could reduce the amount spent on prototyping by a third if they employed the simulation technology currently available.
Using Exa’s software, engineers can see the car digitally rendered in full-size 3D. They can take the car round the Nürburgring test track (virtually). Augmented reality technology means the car can be dropped into a car park and viewed in context.
About 80 per cent of the problems found in the physical testing phase could be eradicated using advance simulation techniques, Exa says. “When you build the first cars you should confirm how they behave, not discover their problems,” says Steve Remondi, Exa’s chief executive.
Digital prototyping could also help bring down the industry’s glacial development times as carmakers try to keep up with new rivals from Silicon Valley, such as Tesla, Google and, potentially, Apple. Rapid prototyping, used by tech companies, helps them bring products to market much faster than the four years it typically takes a car to get off the ground.
“The Apples and Googles . . . have a completely different approach to how to develop a product,” says Daniel Hirsch, a manufacturing expert from PA Consulting.
The shift will meet resistance. Industry purists say you cannot properly judge a car until you have seen it in the flesh. Carmakers will probably continue to produce life-size clay models when deciding the design elements of their models.
German manufacturers, such as Daimler, continue to pour hundreds of millions of euros into wind tunnels for physical testing. And there remains a legal requirement for carmakers to prove to regulators that they have crash-tested 10 physical cars.
But Mr Hirsch says the trend to entrust more and more modelling to cost-effective computers will continue. Development time has to be cut to match accelerating product refreshment cycles, he says: “Computer simulations are the right way to do that.”