The car that wasn't there

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 07:43 08/09/2012
Taranaki Daily News Online

Motoring reporter Rob Maetzig experiences the latest in car creation.

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Rob Maetzig drives the virtual Ford Focus.

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Last week I sat inside a car that didn't exist.

I was able to view its entire interior, reach out towards its gearshift, watch as another car passed me by, and even climb out of the vehicle and move around to its rear to open and shut its hatchback door.

But the car wasn't actually there.

Instead I was sitting in what is called a buck, which was simply a frame containing two car seats and a mock steering wheel, and I was wearing a contraption over my head that was informing my eyes that I was inside a Ford Focus hatch in the middle of a city.

Not only that, but special gloves I was wearing were letting me use my "hands" in this virtual reality scenario to do certain things such as hold the steering wheel, and reach out to access various controls such as the gearshift, air vents and audio.

It really was the weirdest experience. My "hands" floated straight through items like the gearshift lever, and I could quickly understand a warning that attempting to do things in a virtual reality way can lead to nausea.

And then my helpers instructed me to open the car's virtual door, climb out and walk around to its virtual rear.

That took the weird feeling up to another level again, because even though I could see I was walking down the side of the orange-coloured Focus, I staggered down its flanks like a drunk and had to be assisted for fear I might fall over.

Then once in position, I had to open the hatch, view everything inside the virtual car, then close the hatch again.

Welcome to Ford Australia's newly-developed Virtual Reality Centre, one of only three in existence in Ford's global empire: the others are at Dearborn in Michigan and at Cologne in Germany.

It's a fascinating place, where Hollywood animation and Silicon Valley technology are joint venturing with motor vehicle design and engineering to electronically work on motor vehicles years before they go into production.

Last week Ford Australia hosted invited news media from throughout the Asia-Pacific region on a rare tour through the facility. Rare, because normally this is a super-secret place filled with products under various stages of development and which we won't be seeing for up to four years.

"We're giving you a revealing look behind the curtain," was how Ford Australia chief executive Bob Graziano described the event.

"It's in here where it all begins, and which culminates in development of vehicles for use throughout the world."

The Virtual Reality Centre, which is inside the grounds of Ford Australia headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, has incredible computer power. It is estimated it has 1700 times more computing grunt than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed man on the moon in 1969.

Quite a portion of that is housed inside a purpose-built windowless room where I got to drive the virtual car. There, the buck contains a framework of 16 motion-tracking cameras that respond to reference markers on the virtual reality helmets worn by those sitting in the interior of the non-existent vehicle.

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Engineers sit in an adjacent ante- room, able to use monitors to view exactly what the driver and passenger are seeing and doing. That's the point of the virtual car - it lets Ford test the ergonomics of any new vehicle under development. For example, those aboard can physically reach out and "touch" important controls to help ensure that in real life they will be correctly accessible.

Not only that, but the engineers can also change the environment the virtual vehicle is driving in, to make sure exterior visibility can be ideal. In the case of my car we were driving in the middle of a city, but it can be anywhere: I'm told that once, just for a joke, the Virtual Reality Centre boffins even parked a car on the summit of Mt Everest.

In another area of the centre, Ford Australia has set up what it calls a Powerwall, which is a giant 6 metre by 3 metre high-resolution screen which is capable of projecting full- sized vehicle design concepts in three-dimensional form.

There are identical screens in Dearborn and Cologne, and they allow design and engineering staff to hold global meetings at least once a week to appraise progress on new vehicles under development.

Staff can use this screen to manipulate the vehicle design, with operators able to show a vehicle moving, doors opening and closing, instruments functioning, and the driving controls operating. And the modelling can be so accurate that it can view internal components right down to close-up views of the cut- pile of interior carpets.

Fascinating. But I've got to admit that as I sat there watching 3D images of the innards of a Ford Ranger ute, I couldn't help thinking it would also be a great place to watch an AFL grand final or Trackside. I wonder if the Ford Australia people are allowed to do stuff like that . . .

But back to the real - sorry, virtual - world. Adam Frost is the chief engineer of global engineering services and digital innovation with Ford, and he explains that each major simulation on the Powerwall can take up to four hours for the Ford computers to "crunch" - but he adds it would take up to 12 months for a home PC to do the same thing.

"It allows us to use computer simulation to replace many, many years of test driving," he adds.

"In this virtual world, we can evaluate early vehicle design and its engineering against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a complete vehicle years before it is built.

"Ford's truly immersive virtual reality technology allows our designers and engineers to connect with our vehicles in a way few automakers can. This results in designs that engage the driver and occupants from the first time they step into the vehicle."

But that's not all. Ford of Europe is currently going so far as developing a complete virtual factory that will simulate an entire assembly line. This will allow the company to correctly develop the assembly of future models at any Ford plant anywhere in the world.

This project will even involve the creation of a virtual employee called Jack, who will be able to simulate the actions of both male and female assembly line workers, right down to the manoeuvrability of their fingers within enclosed spaces.

Gee. Maybe it was lucky that Jack isn't in Australia yet - otherwise he may have become a virtual Rob and taken over my task last week of viewing the fascinating proceedings in that impressive Virtual Reality Centre on the outskirts of Melbourne.

- Taranaki Daily News

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