– When I opened an email containing an invite to learn more about a driving simulator, my first thought was ‘cool’, followed immediately by ‘hey, wait a minute – this thing’s in Canada?’
Yes, dear reader, our home and native land contains the most advanced driving simulators in the global auto industry.
Nestled away in a rather sedate office park minutes off the E.C. Row Expressway in Windsor, Ontario is the Automotive Research and Development Centre (ARDC) belonging to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The ARDC is a 215,000 square-foot facility that sits on 23 acres and is operated in partnership with the University of Windsor.
It employs 180 and operates 11 labs that cover 15 areas of automotive research and works with other Canadian and international universities, including, in addition to Windsor, McMaster University, University of Waterloo, Université de Sherbrooke, and Politecnico di Torino in Torino, Italy. More than 500 students have been mentored at the facility and many have become employees.
So, is the ARDC some newfangled facility that just opened, like, last year or something?
Nope, it originally opened in May 1996 with a $30 million CAD investment. It has been expanded in the decades since and the total spend is now north of $1 billion. Nearly every vehicle FCA produces is impacted by the ARDC during the development process.
Now you could be forgiven for not realizing this facility exists, much less that it’s in Canada or that it belongs to FCA, because the carmaker hasn’t talked much about it, a reality their PR staff acknowledged during my visit last week.
So why are they showing it off to the automotive press now? Well, as one U.S. rep said to me during the tour, ‘people think we don’t have any technology’.
Well, if that belief persists, allow me to debunk it. FCA has plenty of advanced technology under the ARDC’s roof. A textbook example of their high-tech machinery is the company’s new driving simulator which just went online.
The simulator, formally known as the Vehicle Dynamics Simulator (VDS), represents a $10.1 million CAD investment and it is the most advanced driving simulator in the world and is the only one if its kind located in North America, according to FCA. As the name suggests, the VDS is designed to replicate ride and handling characteristics on a variety of simulated road surfaces which can be used to develop a vehicle’s braking, steering and suspension systems.
The VDS itself is a product of VI Grade, a German simulator technologies company that features nine actuators (most simulators use six) that support a vehicle ‘cab’ to accurately reproduce vehicle ride, handling, and acceleration characteristics.
To replicate vehicle movement during a simulation, the VDS uses a three-micron cushion of air which allows the 4.5-ton platform to float above the floor like a giant air hockey puck. Floating in this manner enables the VDS to operate quietly and seamlessly to keep the simulation more immersive.
During the tour, members of the media were able to experience the VDS in action on a simulated lap around the outer loop of Calabogie Motorsports Park, located near Ottawa. The cab perched on top of the VDS is that of a RAM pickup, so it seemed only fitting that the simulated vehicle I drove was a 2019 RAM 1500
Having had some experience with simulators of the video game variety, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect with the VDS. Turns out, the VDS is nothing like any vehicle simulator I’ve experienced, including iRacing. The interior isn’t that of a finished vehicle by any means, but the seats (apart from a six-point harness) steering wheel and pedal setup are like those found in a production car.
In terms of the experience, it felt realistic for a simulator. Engine noise is piped into the cab so the driver can get a sense of vehicle acceleration, and the rig does an impressive job of simulating elevation changes, g-loading through corners and road surface changes.
The biggest minus I have with the VDS concerns braking and steering. In fairness to FCA, they did tell us beforehand that braking isn’t as precise and therefore it wouldn’t feel like it does in a typical road car.
And boy are they ever right about that.
The progressive braking feel we take for granted in our road cars was noticeably absent, which made it difficult to achieve proper braking force during my run. As a result, I applied too much brake on a few occasions which scrubbed off more speed than I was expecting. Steering in the VDS was good overall, but at times it produced a lot of understeer at turn-in and lacked real-world precision.
Because the VDS floats on an air cushion during operation, one cannot help but feel disconnected from the experience happening on-screen during a run. The operators put us through just one lap of Calabogie (5.05 km), but it was enough for me to feel a twinge of nausea near the end of my run.
These are minor nitpicks, however, and don’t diminish the importance of the VDS regarding FCA product development.
As Tony Mancina, Head of Engineering for FCA Canada told us during a briefing prior to our test ‘drives’, the biggest benefits of the VDS are the time it saves (several months) in product development cycles and the reduction of real-world validation costs because it bridges the gap between virtual engineering and real-world prototype testing.
The VDS, combined with the other ARDC labs I saw during the tour used for testing and researching a variety of subsystems, including lighting, braking, chassis durability and vehicle seating, confirms that FCA does indeed have a lot of big-brain technology and a lot of smart people helming it.
While the ARDC might have flown a bit under the radar before, technology like the VDS should ensure those days are over.