The Drive To Disrupt: How Digital Twins Are Fueling Automotive Innovation

Automotive testing methods need to keep up with the rapid iterations inherent in the software space.


It can be argued that disruptive innovation in the auto sector has defined each of the modern eras. Through history, engineering breakthroughs have shaped the human experience. The wheel and calendar, printing press and cotton gin, electricity and the assembly lines are the vehicles by which we tell the story of human progress. Henry Ford’s assembly line not only democratized motor vehicle ownership, but, by enabling mass production, transformed industries far beyond discrete manufacturing. As we move into a new age defined by the full integration of the physical and digital worlds, the once hardware-centric auto sector must evolve to adapt to a new era defined by software. Digital twin enabled design and test workflows are streamlining this paradigm shift in the automotive industry from mechanical and analogue components to digital electronics and the intelligent machines enabling the Internet of Things (IoT).

This episode of Source De[Code] struck a particularly relatable chord for me because I am currently shopping for a new car. Nowhere is the digital transformation more evident to consumers than in the rapid evolution of technology in the cars we drive. The safety and entertainment features that now come standard were unheard of only a decade ago. Park and lane assist, adaptive cruise control, back up breaks, and so many more semi-autonomous features come standard on every make and model. I live in the downtown core of a large, very old city in the Northeast whose narrow one-way streets and crumbling infrastructure have resulted in incessant roadworks, detours and congested urban arteries which are too closely shared by vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. Sensor technology in new cars is already going a long way towards improving road safety by better equipping drivers to navigate the unpredictable.

Test driving the “what ifs” in auto design

Like most drivers, I hadn’t really considered the design and testing that has gone into ensuring these shiny new features work as intended long before I see them in action on the dealership lot. In the episode, Ben Coffin’s guest Dr. Silviu-Sorin Tuca, the radar-based autonomous vehicle product line manager at Keysight, provides listeners with a brief overview of two ways that vehicle designs are tested. In the first, V-shaped drive testing model, the left side of the V represents the proposed design’s required elements—features, systems, subsystems, and modules—as defined by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). This line accounts for components made by the OEM as well as those they outsource. On the right is the testing and validation required to make the proposed design a reality.

This traditional V model has been the gold standard for automakers for decades because it is ideally suited for the hardware-based testing that, until recently, has been the primary consideration in drive testing. In this model, new subsystems are integrated into the vehicle which is then taken to the test track where the features under test can be monitored. As the automotive industry integrates more software systems into vehicle design, the testing methods must keep up with the rapid iterations inherent in the software space. As a result, this model is not practical for keeping pace with the software industry’s rapid iteration cycles that are increasingly marking the automotive landscape.

Automakers are turning to the disruptive DevOps inspired design and test model introduced by the new software players in the auto space. As has been covered previously in Source De[Code], software design and test workflows must account for complex integrations that can impact the overall functionality of the end product. This model resembles the figure-eight shaped racetracks where the auto sector’s highest performing vehicles vie for dominance. “When you want to create a digital parity,” says Dr. Tuca, “you will need a continuous feedback loop.” This digital parity forms the basis for creating a simulation of the car and the numerous potential environments that it will navigate.

Anticipating the unexpected on the road

At the end of the day, OEMs and consumers have a shared motivation: safety. Safety—my own, that of my passengers, and the safety of those nearby—is the primary consideration in my own search for a new car. I live directly across from an elementary school. Children dash into the road as they rush towards and away from the building, chase after soccer balls or clamber into the waiting busses and family cars that shuttle them between school and home. In my years at this address, I have observed close calls that have left me chilled to the core. The sensor technology equipped in the vehicles I am considering will help me ‘see’ more of what is surrounding my car and help me more quickly respond to the unexpected than I could ever do alone. While no amount of technology can replace a driver’s situational awareness, sensor technology and autonomous functions correct for the momentary lapses in attention we all experience from time to time and mitigate the potentially too-great cost of human error.

Put into this context, the need for digital twins in system and vehicle testing crystallizes. Given the critical nature of these new software-enabled features, the way they are tested must reflect the messy, chaotic landscape that we call “life,” which is euphemistically referred to as “noise” in systems testing. In test and measurement, Dr. Tuca says, “noise is the second term you learn. Noise disturbs everything.” The continuous feedback loop that connects the digital prototype to the physical environment allows for far more robust design testing that better accounts for the ‘noise’ of daily life.

Design testing can put constraints on ambitious automotive designers challenging the limits of what’s possible in the automotive space. “You want to push the boundaries of this testing,” Dr. Tuca explains, “you don’t want to only simulate targets; you want to simulate the guard rails, sign posts, trees, and weather conditions” to see how the vehicle behaves under any array of conditions.

In addition to the objects that drivers will encounter, tests must also accommodate unseen forces that can interfere with the efficacy of vehicle sensors like the 5G backhaul bands that lay just above and below the frequency band where these sensors operate. Moreover, sensors from other vehicles can interfere with each other, thus potentially cancelling out the enhanced safety of modern cars. Digital twins allow OEMs to replicate any imaginable scenario in a software environment that is so realistic the device under test cannot tell the difference, thus ensuring that flaws are identified and corrected well before the rubber hits the pavement of the open road.

If breakthroughs in sensor design and testing are the accelerator, digital twin technology is the clutch that will allow OEMs to shift into high gear and propel us towards a future where autonomous vehicles are the consumer’s first, trusted choice for safe travel.

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)