Volvo Cars’ Alexander Eriksson notes considerable research is being devoted to the automated driving hand-off, finding a balance between fast response and driver stress. (Volvo)

Volvo Cars mixes virtual with real-world testing

The automaker’s novel testing approach aims to speed product development.

Volvo Cars engineers who do a lot of test-track driving are trading their typical street-clothes attire for some serious “tech style.” They’re getting behind the wheel wearing a full-body haptic suit and a mixed-reality headset – the latest outfit for seeing the virtual moose that is poised to cross the vehicle’s path. “The unique thing for Volvo is we are combining technologies in a drivable test rig,” said Casper Wickman, Volvo Cars’ senior technical specialist-Human Centric Methods and Tools, who spoke during a November 2020 event from the company’s Open Innovation Arena in Gothenburg, Sweden.

By altering reality with virtual-reality cues, Volvo researchers can create various simulated traffic scenarios to test with a real vehicle on an actual roadway. The innovative approach aims to speed design and prototype evaluations for future driver assistance, safety and autonomous driving features. Volvo’s novel combination of simulated and actual-driving elements is supported by collaborations with U.K.-based Teslasuit; Unity Technologies, a San Francisco-based video game software developer, and Varjo, a Finnish maker of VR headsets.

The real-time Unity3D engine, enabling the creation of virtual environments and objects, has many use-case examples. “Our active safety team replicated an environment using Unity, where the road is digital and the car is virtual, so we can see if our perception and detection algorithms work,” said Timmy Ghiurau, the automaker’s innovation leader, virtual reality/augmented reality expert. Volvo also is using Unity’s latest simulation tools.

Varjo’s XR-1 mixed reality headset features photorealistic visuals and integrated eye-tracking technology. With the XR-1, Volvo researchers are able to perform user experience and safety studies “by keeping as much as possible of reality, such as real roads, road signs and nature, and only adding virtual objects for the things that they want to evaluate, such as other cars, wild animals, or pedestrians, which would be dangerous or costly to test in the real world,” Marcus Olsson, Varjo’s Mixed Reality Lead, explained to SAE International via email.

Teslasuit’s full-body suit provides motion capture via 10 inertial sensors, bio-sensing and haptic feedback. “We can see the user’s stress levels or heartbeat. And if we combine that with eye-tracking, it gives us quite a good impression of how the user is feeling in a certain traffic or safety situation,” said Ghiurau.

The user experience is crucial to the design and development of autonomous features, said Alexander Eriksson, Volvo’s senior design engineer for automated driving human factors. “Drivers might actually perform worse if we stress them during the take-back-control from the automated driving process,” he noted. Volvo’s use of a mixed-reality headset, haptic feedback suit and the 3D engine goes beyond conventional simulation technologies. “What we learn from our research with these technologies is definitely going to inform the way we design our systems,” he said.

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