FEATURE: Virtual reality helping to shape the commercial vehicles of tomorrow

20 November 2019

The commercial vehicle sector is privy to a lot of new technology and innovation, fundamentally affecting the way commercial vehicles are designed and developed. This week TNB caught up with Carsten Astheimer, Managing Director of British automotive design studio ASTHEIMER, to learn how virtual reality is being used to shape the trucks and vans of the future.

Visitors to Freight in the City earlier this month could hardly fail to miss the presence of exciting new EV truck brand Volta.

The company’s founder and CEO, Carl-Magnus Norden, spoke on the main stage which was heavily Volta-branded, but one thing stood out about the truck brand’s presence at the show… it had no truck on display.

That’s because its first vehicle – a model that has already generated much excitement and in the industry and publicity in the media – is still very much in development.

So, in the absence of a physical truck, delegates were invited to experience Volta and the innovative approach it’s taking in virtual reality (VR).

By donning a VR headset and holding connected controllers, they were given a driver’s-eye view from inside the revolutionary cockpit of a Volta truck, experiencing first-hand what it would be like to take the model for a ‘drive’.

The virtual reality technology on display at the show has been, and continues to be, crucial to the development of the new truck, and while the experts at Prodrive are working on the engineering and construction of a finished, working prototype for real-world testing, much of the work involved in bringing the project to life so far, has taken place in virtual reality at ASTHEIMER’s Warwick studio.

“VR offers us the opportunity to review the vehicle in real scale to fully understand the proportions, the ergonomics and packaging requirements of the vehicle,” explains Carsten, “but that’s just one part of the modern design process.”

One of Volta’s USPs is its reimagining of the conventional truck, which positions the driver low down in a central, single-seat cab and benefiting from the improved visibility this gives – an objective in-line with the principles behind the Direct Vision Standard – VR has been instrumental in developing the driver experience.

Carsten added, “Our design process starts by focusing on the user of the vehicle in a human-centric approach to design, understanding their needs and desires, their pain points, focusing on how we can make the product better, including aesthetics, ergonomics, features and functions. We analyse carefully the competition, the manufacturing process and technologies we can use to minimise part count and using the most sustainable materials.

“Once we have a clear scope or brief for the project we start the creative phase with 2D visuals, which express the values of the brand. We move quickly into 3D virtual models using various 3D modelling software which we review daily in Virtual Reality.”

Having trialled the vehicle in virtual reality, it’s then time to move to a more physical, real-world form. Here too, technology, including the likes of 3D printing plays a massive part.

Carsten continued, “Once a direction has been chosen we move into a physical 3D mock-up, using milled parts, to accurately assess the ergonomics, sight lines and overall proportions, and we will review this physical model with VR, to get a photorealistic image of the vehicle for final validation.

“From here we can move directly into the prototyping phase, making one-off parts with various rapid prototyping techniques, 3D printing, milling and one-off moulding.

“This process cuts out the lengthy traditional clay modelling phases in quarter scale and one-to-one scale. It’s achievable thanks to these new technologies and to the experience of our designers and modellers.”

But with so much technology already involved in vehicle design, how does Carsten see the process developing moving forward?

“The future of technology will continue to streamline the process with interactive VR and AR hardware and software,” added Carsten. “Designers of the future will design directly in virtual 3D, and will be able to interact with engineers, software developers, in real time around the world. This could further reduce design cycle times and give the designer more freedom to create, but we must always remember that these technologies are only tools and do not substitute good experienced designers.”

As this process of streamlining design and prototype development becomes more sophisticated, rapid and seamless, it cannot fail to benefit the industry as a whole.