The COVID-19 pandemic has forced automotive manufacturers to rethink how they design and develop new vehicles. In particular, automakers have had to find ways to ensure the safety of their employees, their families, and the communities in which they live and work while doing their best to continue vehicle design and development activities.

Some of the most important steps to slowing the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, have led companies to close or limit access to their offices and facilities. These restrictions, while necessary, present substantial challenges for automakers. Office buildings and factories as well as testing, certification, and homologation facilities either were closed or reorganized to support physical separation between employees. For the vehicle design and engineering staff, the most prominent challenges center on maintaining a collaborative, productive work environment while being physically separated from colleagues.

Despite the widespread use of computer-aided design and engineering (CAD/CAE) software, significant portions of the vehicle design and engineering process still rely on traditional manual or interpersonal processes. For instance, engineers and designers often rely on in-person design reviews to gain approval on their work or direct its refinement. Office closures and social distancing measures invalidate many of these processes as designers and engineers have transitioned to working from home.

Through this transition, enterprise digitalization has proven to be critical for teams adjusting to remote work and collaboration. Companies with pre-existing and robust digital backbones were ready and able to send their design and engineering staff home with little disruption to their workflows. These companies have also facilitated more effective collaboration and kept employees more informed and engaged. As a result, their design and engineering teams have continued to produce high-quality, exciting vehicle designs despite their physical detachment.

Novel virtual technologies

The challenges of operating during a global pandemic also present opportunities to innovate. Right now, automotive companies are learning quickly about the benefits and drawbacks of working virtually and accordingly refining their approaches. During this process, automotive manufacturers have developed novel applications of virtual technologies to better support their staff, customers, and partners. And again, we have seen that those companies with strong digital foundations have been able to trial, refine and scale these new methodologies with greater ease, and thus realize the value more quickly.

VR and AR (virtual and augmented reality), for instance, have been used in the automotive industry for several years, but the applications have so far been limited. The necessities of working during the pandemic have driven automakers to integrate VR and AR into new processes. Before the pandemic, many automotive manufacturers still used clay models for design reviews and approvals, which required the physical presence of the chief designer, engineers, and more. Social distancing, of course, makes this in-person design review and signoff impossible. In response, automakers have used VR and AR to enable virtual design reviews where the key stakeholders examine the design in a shared virtual space (Figure 2). The chief designers, engineers, and other key stakeholders can thoroughly discuss, evaluate, and make highly informed decisions on vehicle designs—as if they were in the same room.

Likewise, automakers’ use of advanced simulation technologies has progressed considerably as testing facilities have closed. These technologies enable engineers to begin verifying, validating, and refining the design of various subsystems and the entire vehicle even without access to physical prototypes, wind tunnels, or other testing facilities. Modern simulation solutions provide high-fidelity recreations of system or vehicle performance in every critical domain. In addition to CFD (computation fluid dynamics) software, which has been in use for over a decade, automakers can now simulate vehicle software, electronics (such as sensors and ECUs), battery packs, and even realistic vehicle dynamics in a variety of traffic, weather, and other environmental conditions.

The advancement of automotive simulation technologies, and their integration into the design and engineering process, accelerates the maturation of vehicle designs before prototyping. Through many cycles of design, simulation, and refinement, vehicle designs can be continuously improved as they progress through development. This means fewer issues and design revisions that result from physical testing on vehicle prototypes, and thus a faster and less costly certification program.

From challenges into competitive advantages

Ultimately, the landscape of the automotive industry post-COVID will be shaped by the companies that capitalize on the opportunities hidden amongst the many challenges facing the industry today. Those companies will take the opportunity to develop new design methodologies, integrate advanced technologies, and digitalize previously manual processes. Such change, however, also needs to be undertaken intelligently and prudently. Automakers will need to strike a balance between digital and physical solutions to provide better user experiences, become more efficient, and reduce cost throughout the vehicle lifecycle.