Virtual Reality Holds the Keys to the Future of the Automotive Industry

September 29, 2020

Virtual Reality Holds the Keys to the Future of the Automotive Industry

The automotive industry drives and thrives on innovation.

New makes and models are introduced by every manufacturer each year and, as technology moves at warp speed, the features and mechanics of these new designs also are driven by new advances.

Virtual reality and augmented reality have existed for years, but these platforms have slowly funneled into automotive mechanics and design, marketing initiatives and sales concepts implemented by the manufacturers.

In many ways, virtual reality holds the keys to the future of the automotive industry and can positively impact the consumer experience—both behind the wheel and in the sales process.

Consumers have become accustomed to augmented reality in GPS devices and safety features like backup cameras and smart rearview windows that incorporate aspects of augmented and virtual reality. However, virtual reality and augmented reality intersect and weave throughout many segments of this industry.

We’ll explore how both virtual reality and augmented reality are positioned to enhance the driving experience, product design engineering and the car shopping process, too. Buckle up, and get ready to merge into the fast lane with this innovative technology.

Volvo and Virtual Reality

Volvo has integrated virtual reality into its manufacturing process for years. Volvo made history in 2015 when it became the first automotive company to partner with Microsoft to utilize Hololens technology in automotive design.

Hololens allowed executives and team members to visualize the new models in 3D and showcased them in a real world environment (i.e. augmented reality instead of virtual reality). CNET reported that “Volvo uses HoloLens in its engineering and design meetings….” The same article from CNET predicted that Volvo also was looking to incorporate the technology for service technicians, too.

In 2019, Volvo partnered with Varjo to integrate augmented reality into the testing of safety features and to further aid in product development. According to a press release from Volvo:

“Compared to its predecessor, the XR-1 adds high-definition cameras to the headset and enables mixed reality. This allows Volvo Cars designers and engineers to ‘drive’ future cars and evaluate all features in a simulation environment many years before they exist, enabling the company to develop the safest cars with the most refined user experience possible.”

Car Shopping Virtually: How Toyota Utilized Augmented Reality to Enhance the Shopping Experience

In 2019, Toyota was making headlines across trade and industry publications for using augmented reality to elevate the consumer’s shopping experience. Toyota partnered with Vertebrae and Saatchi & Saatchi to create a virtual shopping experience that, according to the announcement via Vertebrae, required no apps or downloads.

The online experience allowed shoppers to “…place the AR vehicle in any environment (in their driveway or garage – or in front of their office) and walk around the vehicle to explore it at any angle.”

As Covid-19 swept across the United States and shut down many businesses that were deemed nonessential, many dealerships and manufacturers embraced virtual reality and augmented reality to simulate the car buying experience from home.

RelayCars provided dealerships with an online virtual showroom a platform that allowed consumers to preview different makes and models from the comfort of home. Shoppers could view the interior and exterior of different vehicles and even preview different paint colors.

While these virtual platforms allowed consumers to explore their options, for some dealerships, virtual test drives also were offered. These test drives could be utilized via an app—like a game. Others, though, simply allowed shoppers to schedule a test drive remotely. The dealership delivered the vehicle to the shopper’s home for a personalized test drive.

Augmented Reality and Vehicle Safety

Many new models are equipped with augmented reality features that may enhance the driver’s safety, or, at least, improve the driving experience.

Smart rearview mirrors can utilize cameras from the back of the car for an enhanced view of the traffic (or obstacles) behind the driver. This feature is especially useful during night driving or when navigating in poorly lit areas (like a parking garage).

Other features in our cars also take advantage of this unique technology. If you use a GPS system for navigation, the computerized paths generated over the street views to denote your route are an example of how augmented reality simplifies your journey.

Accessing your backup (or front end) cameras to view your turning radius or to check your proximity to other cars and obstacles also is another form of automotive augmented reality at work. These cameras and the navigation prompts they provide may help eliminate minor fender benders.

CNET delved into the world of automotive augmented reality last summer. CNET’s story highlighted the new GMC pickups that featured “…a transparent trailer view option.” This unique vantage point was a bit like throwing an invisibility cloak over the trailer; the driver could see behind their truck as if the trailer wasn’t even there!

Virtual Reality: Marketing & Design

While most drivers will be greeted with some form of augmented reality in their vehicles, virtual reality’s use for drivers is a bit more limited…for now. Virtual platforms enhance the shopping experience and allow consumers to preview cars and explore features, but, during drivetime, virtual reality isn’t really integrated into the navigation system.

This technology is still incredibly important in the industry, though. While drivers don’t necessarily step into the virtual realm on the road, designers, engineers and executives do immerse in the virtual.

The integration of virtual reality into the design process has helped to transform this aspect of the industry. During Covid, Joel Piaskowski (of Ford) spoke with Automobile Magazine about how virtual reality platforms allowed executives to continue the design process while working remotely during the pandemic.

By utilizing virtual reality headsets, executives could view three-dimensional models of vehicles and assess the features as a team. Avatars represented each team member within the virtual world. Piaskowski told the magazine that executives could swap vantage points to view the model from another team member’s angle and also could utilize laser pointers within the virtual platform to pinpoint specific features.

Other manufacturers have utilized virtual reality platforms for marketing purposes. For example, BMW offered a virtual test drive on Mars for its X3 model! Consumers could navigate the red planet from behind the wheel of the luxury X3; however, user experience was limited…as the test drive was via YouTube.

Virtual Reality & NASCAR

Even before Covid, NASCAR fans embraced virtual reality racing in the form of iRacing. Fans could take to the track in a simulated virtual reality racing challenge. NASCAR provided two options—a race where all cars were equal and another where fans could change up their cars. Races provided simulated racing experiences where drivers competed for championship glory…from anywhere.

Those with virtual reality headsets—like Oculus Rift or Pimax—could jump onto the track for a more realistic experience that immersed them into the race. However, racers didn’t have to use a headset to compete in the iRacing competitions.

iRacing allowed diehard racing fans to experience the thrill of NASCAR even when races might have been halted because of the pandemic. Fans could race on a variety of tracks including Texas Motor Speedway, Fairbury Speedway, Lime Rock Park, Silverstone, Daytona International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 24h Le Mans and many more!

When Covid hit and halted the racing season, NASCAR responded by airing their eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. While fans could already take to the virtual track, the online virtual reality world became the solution to keep race fans enjoying their favorite sport. In an article for CBS Sports, Scott Warfield, NASCAR’s Managing Director for Gaming, was interviewed about the virtual races:

“I think we were confident in what it would do because of what we’ve seen over the past 11 years,” Warfield explained (to CBS). “With that said, I’d be lying if I thought it would do 1.3 million viewers and it would be broadcasted in 160 countries around the world. I’ve gotten more emails and texts from friends and family and college buddies about iRacing and different events they’re seeing over the last three weeks on Sunday than outside of the Daytona 500.

“It’s not replacing the Cup Series, it’s not replacing the NBA or any of this other stuff. We understand that. But it’s filling a little bit of a void and it’s real and it’s dramatic and it’s unpredictable and the finishes have been great. All of those things that make sports special, there’s components of all of that in this.”

Virtual and Augmented Reality: The Future of the Automotive Industry

NASCAR drivers are racing virtually. Safety features integrating augmented reality help aid drivers during commutes. Manufacturers also utilized virtual reality to showcase car models while design teams were forced to work from home during the pandemic. To simplify the car shopping process during shelter-in-place mandates, manufacturers and dealerships provided virtual showrooms to help prospective buyers find their ideal car, allowing them to see inside and even update paint hues.

While all of these advancements have thrust the automotive industry into a high-tech realm, the industry has merely touched on the beginning of how virtual and augmented reality will enhance the driving experience…and the industry as a whole.

Design teams can merely speculate about the possible uses of virtual reality and how it can—and will—change the features of future models.

Self-driving cars are the future of automotive technology, and drivers could be completely bumped from the driver’s seat. In their place, perhaps an avatar will be positioned in the driver’s seat. Maybe that avatar looks like the car’s owner. Or perhaps we will be able to choose the appearance of virtual drivers. Maybe no one will sit in the driver’s seat!

Apple filed a patent for a smart windshield. According to news reports, details of the patent possibly reveal that this smart windshield will feature Facetime capabilities. The possibilities for a smart windshield, though, could be endless. In a self-driving car, this type of windshield also could allow passengers to surf the web or handle other business matters (although this isn’t speculated in reports related to the patent).

The evolution of technology and its constant advancement leaves so many doors open as to how virtual and augmented reality platforms can be integrated in design and development, too. For Jaguar, virtual reality has been a pivotal part of the design process, but the technology also has been vital for other processes, too.

Jaguar Land Rover’s Virtual Reality Centre “is considered to be the most advanced Virtual Reality facility in the automotive industry.” Jaguar has used virtual reality in its development for more than a decade (since 2008), and, for the luxury manufacturer, virtual reality isn’t simply limited to design and 3D models. In the company’s blog, Andy Richardson, who is a manager of the Jaguar Land Rover Simulation Group in the United Kingdom wrote:

“The power and flexibility of the system is such that it is not just restricted to vehicles. We’ve used Virtual Reality to help with the design of the factories we use to assemble the vehicles. Virtual Reality helped us to visualize the vehicle as it passes through every stage of the manufacturing process to optimize the tools, facilities and processes to ensure each vehicle can be made just as engineering intended.”

Consumer Comfort & Virtual Reality

Manufacturers and dealerships are embracing virtual reality for numerous reasons. Consumers may seemingly have no choice but to embrace it, too. Although, many consumers have embraced it and perhaps may even prefer the virtual to the reality.

Covid forced most consumers to limit their shopping to essential items only. However, some consumers still needed to buy a new car, even when dealerships might have been closed to in-person traffic. Covid, after all, didn’t stop mechanical breakdowns or other issues that might lead to the replacement of an old model. How do you preview a new car, though, when you can’t visit the dealership? Virtual reality showrooms!

In the period of April 25 to April 27, 16 percent of those who responded to the Covid-19 Digital Shopping Study said that the “ability to purchase completely online” was one of the “Triggers that could accelerate vehicle purchase.” In addition, about 66 percent of those responded said that they were “more likely to buy the vehicle 100% online.” While the report didn’t highlight virtual showrooms or virtual test drives, for many shopping online for a car, these experiences could have aided their search and helped them feel more comfortable.

The reality is that Covid has likely forced many to reconcile any discomfort of shopping online and even making major purchases online, because, for many industries, online shopping was the only option. The pandemic changed buying habits, and online shopping and the use of virtual reality and augmented reality to aid the quest of online shopping will probably become a more normalized way to shop and explore new services, experiences and products. As more sales head online, virtual reality also will likely be used to provide consumers with a simulation of interactions that are so vital to the in-store experience.

In the realm of automotive sales, virtual reality will likely take the driver’s seat. Consumers may experience more virtual options, including immersive test drive experiences. Driving on Mars may only be the beginning of what the industry will offer. If self-driving cars become the normalized way to commute, these test drives could take place as virtual simulations in the dealership.

Virtual showrooms may be inclusive to physical showrooms. We might walk into a dealership and see a projection of a new vehicle. The hologram could be completely interactive and allow shoppers to virtually open doors and peek inside the vehicle. The future of virtual reality for the automotive industry is really open to the imagination and genius new innovations of designers and engineers. Buckle up, because the virtual ride will most likely be an exhilarating journey!