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Tom Spendlove


Simulation Continues to Replace Physical Prototypes

VI-Grade’s AutoHawk brings simulation and physical testing closer together

Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2022 - 13:02

Simulation is a necessity for automotive companies in the 21st century, and there’s pressure to use more of it for many reasons: 1) Electrification produces more heat sources that need CFD and thermal analysis to design dissipation strategies; 2) industrywide moves toward minimal or “zero” prototype builds make crashworthiness and structural simulation more important; 3) advanced driver automation systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles require constant data collection and processing via simulation; and 4) smart connected systems in a car have increased the number of chips and the need for electronic system design (ESD) and simulation.

The engineers at VI-Grade are especially keen to move the industry toward zero prototypes. The German simulation and driving simulator company even has a yearly event called the ZERO PROTOTYPES Summit. To help bring this future to fruition, earlier this quarter VI-Grade announced AutoHawk for the North American market, a hardware-in-the-loop (HiL) simulation platform. The company hopes the tool will reduce prototypes because the simulators are highly configurable and can therefore meet the validation needs of internal combustion engines, electric vehicles, and many other customer and consumer use cases.

AutoHawk gives users several options for configuration. (Image courtesy of VI-Grade.) AutoHawk is a mix of new technology and VI-grade tools that are already in place. Because the HiL market is large and will continue to grow as electric vehicles become more prominent, systems like AutoHawk can act as an interim step between current development processes and a zero-prototype future.

The rise of hardware-in-the-loop systems

VI-Grade called out two specific use cases in its AutoHawk announcement: a large number of electronic control units (ECUs) in the next wave of vehicles, and the push toward vehicle electrification, which often requires HiL systems for battery and power electronics validation. Hardware-in-the-loop systems allow engineers to run tests on physical components while simulating the rest of the vehicle inputs and dynamics virtually. As a result, each manufacturer can work toward validation before physical representations of interfacing components are available.

In a May 2022 webinar, “Introducing AutoHawk, the HiL Solution Powered by CCRT for Automotive Applications,” VI-Grade vice president for HiL applications Christoph Ortmann cited a report from Frost & Sullivan that said the 2020 HiL testing market was $720 million, and the rise of electrification could push that number to $1.3 billion by 2026. These numbers focused on automotive applications, but HiL is emerging in the aerospace, defense, and space industries as well.

Ortmann showed the three areas of focus for VI-Grade’s HiL work. The steering and brakes in the chassis system were the first areas. ADAS systems and guidance technology include cameras, radar, and LiDAR systems. Finally, the powertrain group focused on batteries, engines, e-motors, and the driveline.

Electrification drives the need for more simulation to closely monitor and predict the behavior of these systems—and complexity increases as each new task is added to the pile. VI-Grade’s long-term vision is an environment where HiL systems help to run virtual tests with hardware such as driving simulators. Software-in-the-loop (SiL) systems can be fully virtual systems, but working with customers and vendors can be tricky when intellectual property rights and data security concerns are involved. Physically testing the components while simulating the rest of the system is a compromise that still lowers the number of prototype parts needed while giving engineers high levels of confidence in the validation results.

What does AutoHawk do?

AutoHawk is a platform of tools that include hardware, software, and I/O cards optimized for custom configuration and working with a wide array of partner equipment. The units can operate as standalone computers attached to a component, an HiL tester interfaced with a driving simulator, or a ride-along in a physical vehicle.

One of the goals when building AutoHawk was a tool that engineers could use throughout the full design and development process, from conception to validation and signoff. In the beginning stages of a project, the desktop computer can run simulations. Deeper into the work, HiL and SiL solutions will help engineers understand real-time requirements. The unit can then ride along on vehicles for final validation. Once on the market, these processes can give rise to digital twins that can predict and monitor the health of systems in production.

AutoHawk units can operate as a standalone computer attached to a component, an HiL tester interfaced within a driving simulator, or a ride-along in a physical vehicle. (Image courtesy of VI-Grade.)

Virtual vehicles can give information up to five times faster, Ortmann says, and using virtual inputs also allows companies to validate physical components faster. Using a combination of real-time data from the physical vehicle and the virtual models helps to maintain the fidelity of results while pulling time out of the cycle.

One of the clever parts of AutoHawk’s design is its ability to work with any software and hardware from third-party developers. Following the company’s open architecture philosophy, the system is built around concurrent real time on the Redhawk Linux operating system. Programmers more comfortable in C, Java, or Python can bring their code in as well. The system has a strong weaving of Matlab, Simulink, and SIMulation Workbench in its foundation. Several communication protocols—CAN, LIN, and Flexray are shown in the documentation—can also be used in the system. Hardware also has a range of options, with the three standard configurations delineated between the 8-, 16-, or 24-core technology.

Big picture, what does this all mean?

Skepticism of a completely zero-prototype future comes naturally to me, mostly because of the time I spent in the automotive industry designing and building prototypes. When Altair published its 2022 Digital Twin Global Survey Report, I definitely sided with the 4 percent of those surveyed who said that physical prototypes could never be eliminated from a vehicle design and development process.

The breadth of simulation choices available to an engineering company right now is staggering. There are the industry giants like Ansys and Altair that everyone is familiar with, but we learn about new companies doing incredible simulation work almost every month. Part of the shift from the United States as the global leader, or at least a centralized location, for innovation and manufacturing is the idea that there are excellent products and tools for simulation all over the world.

In 2020, MotorTrend magazine reported there were 42 different car brands selling vehicles just in the U.S. When you add in companies around the world, and companies developing automobiles or autonomous vehicles that haven’t even sold a car yet, the number jumps into the hundreds. All of these companies are presumably using some simulation tool(s) to develop their vehicles. And there’s no single design for vehicle chassis, electrification, or communication systems. Industry standards, government regulations, and ISO committees exist to give guidelines for use and validation, but the one obvious path to vehicle validation using only simulation hasn’t yet emerged. This, along with general cranky-old-engineer thinking, is why completely removing prototypes from the situation seems like a longer time frame shift to me.

However, hardware-in-the-loop systems are an excellent transition point between full physical prototypes in a development cycle and building zero prototypes. Vehicle development is only going to become more complex over time, and a variety of solutions will be needed to meet the myriad challenges facing engineers and technicians. AutoHawk has a good system in place and a nice packaging of current content with new uses, making for a super-configurable tool for its customers. Tools like this require engineers to have a deeper understanding of their components and systems before entering the development arena. When your simulation tools can do anything, it becomes necessary to make smart decisions about what to test, when to test it, and how to view the results.


About The Author

Tom Spendlove’s picture

Tom Spendlove

Tom Spendlove is an engineering professor and author with a background in teaching engineering, autocad, and design. He has more than a decade of experience in education and enjoys making the theoretical more practical for his students.