Are Virtual Cars for Real?

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By Mahbubul Alam, CTO & CMO, Movimento Group

We are all used to driving around in our cars and think of cars as purely physical entities, but, the automotive world would have us think differently. Digital and virtual vehicles are being lauded as the way forward to help improve our driving experience. The term “Virtual Car” may seem like an oxymoron, how can we drive a virtual car? But it holds the promise of helping save lives, reduce cost for car makers and improve our enjoyment of using cars.

A virtual what?

With the alphabet soup of acronyms and new terms swamping the connected car world, it’s difficult to know what’s a digital car and what’s a virtual car. I like to think of a digital car as the digital technology behind one car – an avatar representing a single car. It’s the digital control systems similar to using the Nest app for remotely controlling home air conditioning. If we draw a parallel to the financial world, digital money takes the form of credit cards that represent directly how much money we own. Virtual money, on the other hand, is akin to monopoly money – we can spend what we like and loose big, yet it does not impact what’s happening in the real world or change the amount of cash in our wallets. That’s not to say that the feelings of losing or winning are not representative of the real world.

A virtual vehicle is similar, it is based in the cloud, and while it uses technology just like a digital car does, it doesn’t relate to any specific car. It’s a simulation of how millions of cars would react, for example, to a cyber-attack or malicious viruses attacking our cars. A virtual car is a simulation that car makers would use to develop new software and systems and also test them out.

Changes afoot

While the evidence is there that the auto world is still heavily invested in the world of physical cars – globally it is possible to produce 113 million vehicles annually, while sales hover at around 70 million – the auto industry is looking to technology innovators and realize a more virtual world exists with a wealth of mobility and virtual options. The first step in this direction is OTA software updates. According to IHS, map OTA updates are projected to grow from 1.2 million units in 2015 to 32 million by 2022. Car makers are seeing value with going digital and will reap the benefits of reduced warranty costs, increased overall completion rates for software recalls, reduced trips to the dealer and more upgrade functionality to the car. But there’s an important twist to this story. While software updates are coming to cars, updates need to be tested virtually before they are sent out. The auto industry needs to look at this sand box in the sky as a place where anything can happen yet it does not impact driver safety or their reputation.

But wait, doesn’t the car industry already test vehicles?

While some limited virtual testing already takes place today, with virtual crash testing, in the world of Internet-of-Things (IoT), which automotive is becoming an increasingly more integrated part of, it’s all about scale. The automotive industry now needs to test millions, if not tens of millions of vehicles. With virtual testing, car and equipment makers can add more features and test out how millions of cars would behave in any given scenario. Manufacturers could test out all the systems of a car before adding a new feature, doing an update or applying a security patch.

The value in making that extra step, going beyond a digital car to use virtual cars will be seen in car sharing, car improvements, and car safety. Virtual testing can simulate car conditions and test them out on millions of cars to make sure they are ready before sending out an update or choosing to do a physical recall. Car makers can simulate power failure, massive collisions or infrastructure breakdowns all on a large scale. It will be possible to build the first prototype of a car in a virtual world and test it out from every angle before building it. It’s similar to a flight simulator practicing how flights land and take off, to bulletproof systems and procedures.

Taking best-of-breed from other markets

In December 2015, Amazon Web Services rolled out its new nano instances, offering a virtual low-power computer in the cloud that costs only $25 a year. At Movimento, we have added a similar virtual capability to our OTA platform for virtually testing on a mass scale that will help OEMs learn and then update the different parts of a car. It’s the evolution of the digital world of OTA updates and will give car makers a tool to test precision points within cars, yet with the ability to scale to millions of cars. It will help car makers emulate the virtual car in large scale and make all the tests on a virtual vehicle that we do on a physical one.

What does the future hold?

In the tech world a lot can happen in a year, but if we look even further ahead, what do we see for the virtual car? I predict that in ten years’ time every car will be created and tested in a virtual environment first. Engineers will have a profile of the ideal car, drivers will know what they want infotainment systems to do, and OEMs will have dreams of what Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) systems at scale could achieve or what they want from Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems. Like Minecraft, the whole system will be built in the cloud first. The car makers that are building masses of physical cars today will have a new development process that will start in the virtual world and finish with a physical car.