If you think that technology has changed the way we use and interact with our cars, spare a thought for the engineers who design them.
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At the launch of the RWD Ford Everest this week, CarAdvice was invited to experience the VR CAVE development environment at the company’s Broadmeadows headquarters.

One of just three facilities of its kind around the world, the CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment) utilises the latest interactive virtual reality projection technology, to put engineers and designers into the driver’s seat, without leaving the building.

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The system, which went online in early 2015, has a ‘real’ driver’s seat which has been mapped to highly detailed three dimensional models of Ford (and competitor) vehicles. With the use of special goggles and reflective registration points on the chair, goggles and a finger-pointer device, the user can look around and interact with a virtual vehicle in real time.

This allows engineers to assess ergonomics and usability implications of any element of the vehicle, from the placement of the volume knob to whether you can reach behind the passenger seat to pick up a dropped toy.

CarAdvice spoke with Jeremy Welch from Ford’s Vehicle Engineering and Product Development department who said that the CAVE allowed designers and technicians to understand and evolve their designs in a fraction of the time of using physical models.

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“That’s the whole idea of CAD; we can move things very quickly. It’s much easier than making prototypes, as we can move things parametrically. You can adjust something on the model, and it updates automatically and you have a new position," Welch said.

Something as simple as the width of a C-Pillar in a future model can be assessed and modified almost on-the-fly, enabling the user to clearly understand vision constraints or other real-world implications.

This technology was used to help engineers understand component updates and tooling required for the transition of the Everest from AWD to RWD, where items like the transfer case and front differential would be removed.

Welch said that “once the vehicle was approved in a virtual environment, production tooling can be utilised to create components for a physical test vehicle. There is no longer a need for a wholly customised creation using expensive CNC machines.”

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The use of technology extends to the testing of vehicles, where a quarter of a million kilometres can be simulated, where all facets of the environment, including temperature, dirt and grit, are considered within the modelling algorithm.

This enables Ford engineers to test the tolerances of components to the point of failure, without destroying costly prototypes or wasting unnecessary time in component machining.

This means a faster turnaround for model lifecycle changes and more future proof models in the process.