Technology

The secrets of Volvo Cars’ driving simulator

The virtual world meets the real world in Volvo Cars’ driving simulator, a machine that helps its engineers perfect the way every Volvo responds to your inputs.

BY DAN STEVENS

Data gathered from Volvo Cars’ driving simulator supports the extensive testing done on real roads  

Volvo Cars’ driving simulator is a machine that helps humans make cars better to drive and it played a big part in the development of the new Volvo XC60. That millimetre-perfect recreation of a test track or a favourite piece of road means its engineers can test new models on dozens of different surfaces and routes without having to leave the building. And they can alter the way the car behaves by using a computer to change the suspension, tyres or steering, without having to physically change components.

When Volvo Cars first started its simulator testing program it was only the third car manufacturer in the world to use one of these machines. Today, there are still only a couple more of them in use – one is at a manufacturer that has just tested the world’s fastest electric car. Each is a very advanced, complex simulator that can be programmed to mimic an exact piece of road or a complete test track. Every bump, every inconsistency in the road surface – every single last thing, right down to an accuracy of 0.2mm.

The simulator looks like something out of Star Wars – the cut-down car body, perched on top of the rig’s hissing, bucking hexapod legs, is a rather bizarre sight. You sit in what is, to all intents and purposes, a real Volvo car cabin (because it is a real Volvo car cabin). You look out of the windscreen at a huge, wraparound screen displaying what’s (theoretically) going on. It’s a bit like the world’s most effective PlayStation racing cockpit, but much, much more realistic.

“It’s definitely a good office,” says Carl Sandberg, a vehicle dynamics engineer at Volvo Cars who works with the rig every day and helped to set it up when it first arrived. “And it’s not really like a video game. The vehicle model, the physics is much more detailed. Whereas in a video game you’re not too concerned if the physics are real as long as they feel okay, here we actually want to go into each component and modify it.”

“It enables us all to speak the same language and improves communication“

STEFAN KARLSSON

DRIVING DYNAMICS ATTRIBUTE INTEGRATION LEADER

This is what enables Carl and his colleagues to delve into the minute detail of how a car behaves, how it rides and handles and, crucially, how they can change those details to improve that behaviour.

But how has it helped to make the Volvo cars you drive into better cars? On a purely practical level, it cuts the time it takes to develop a car. As cars get increasingly complicated, a balance has to be found between the need to build a great car and with getting it finished. The simulator does exactly that, so the Volvo car you buy is the most developed it can be.

“It means that the vast amount of people involved in developing and testing new Volvo cars can all work on the same machine”

It also means that the vast amount of people involved in developing and testing new cars can all work on the same machine. “It’s a step between the physical testing, the test drivers, and the engineers who work in the lab,” says Carl. “It enables us all to speak the same language and improves communication between our groups.” Stefan Karlsson, Volvo Cars’ Driving Dynamics Attribute Integration Leader, agrees. “Typically I would have guys with 20 years experience of driving a car and people with 20 years experience of using a computer model and they couldn’t really talk,” says Stefan. “Now it’s much easier because it’s the same team that works on the simulator and drives the cars.”

And it helps to make Volvo cars behave more consistently, because the same results can be replicated again and again, so it’s a lot easier to spot and deal with issues. “You can go into everything in detail and go back and do it again,” says Stefan. “You just back up five seconds, and you can try the same piece of road again. It’s closing the gap between objective and subjective testing.”

“If you’re using a desktop simulator you see one set of results at a time,” says Carl. “With this machine you have to consider everything about the car – you have no option but to feel everything at the same time.”

It’s the way the simulator brings everything together and makes it accessible to everyone working on a specific project that changes things. And, as a result, helps to make the new generation of Volvo cars strike that elusive balance between comfort and handling.