Virtual Reality in Car Design at Ford: Joel Piaskowski Interview

While the Covid pandemic caused many businesses to shutter and implement work-from-home operations, the supply chains for many industries (including automotive) came to a halt as factories paused production to ensure workers’ safety. Globally, supply and demand for many nonessential goods decreased as consumers hunkered indoors abiding by shelter-in-place mandates and limiting excursions to only necessary trips.

Yet, other divisions and departments within industries pushed forward. While factory work might have been limited—or completely shut down—for other employees, it was simply business as usual, albeit from a home office…and perhaps an infusion of new technology. Ford’s Joel Piaskowski spoke with Automobile Magazine about how the company utilized virtual reality as designers worked from home to create new models.

Virtual Modeling in 3D

Traditional automobile models are often rendered in clay, but Covid’s work-from-home office structure required that team leaders have a more integrated approach to design. Clay models could only be viewed via conference calls in 2D; however, a three-dimensional approach is necessary for directors to appropriately visualize and understand a concept model.

With clay models momentarily crushed as an option, design teams had to utilize other ways to create and conceptualize these models.

The solution for Ford was virtual reality. Piaskowski told the magazine that several company leaders/directors utilized virtual reality to preview designs for models. Meanwhile, designers were working from home via their company computers/software and creating the concepts that took life via virtual reality.

Viewing Models in Virtual Reality

For Ford, modeling in VR integrated some familiar backdrops. Piaskowski said in the interview that they had a 360-degree photo of a company courtyard that they used to display their virtual models. Avatars of directors also could swap into others’ positions within the VR landscape (to gain a different perspective), and Piaskowski also said in the interview that he could utilize a laser pointer in VR to draw attention to certain aspects of a model.

All of these capabilities emphasize how technology has been embraced during the pandemic to continue normal business operations. Still, clay will continue to be necessary. Piaskowski stated in the interview: “Once it gets down to final sign off, it seems like clay is never going to go away…” However, when this element couldn’t be used in the earlier phases of the design layout, VR has been a convenient resource to ensure that the design aspect of the industry doesn’t come to a complete standstill.

Before the Pandemic Virtual Reality was a Rising Technology

Virtual reality in automotive design is a pivot that many other manufacturers have utilized…even before Covid forced many manufacturers to pivot to a virtual workspace.

Grid Raster, which works with the automotive, aerospace and defense and technology manufacturers, conducted a survey to understand how companies are using VR “for greater production efficiencies and savings.” The survey gleaned more than 200 responses “from C-level and technology executives of mid-level and enterprise-level organizations”). The survey was conducted in late March of 2020, right around the time Covid shelter-in-place mandates began across the country.

More than half of those who participated in the survey said that the company used VR/AR in design. More than a quarter noted that it was used for training employees, and more than half implemented VR for customer service (i.e. virtual visits).

In a press release about the survey, Dijam Panigrahi, Grid Raster’s co-founder and Chief Operations Officer, noted that the Covid pandemic was likely to further boost the use of VR:
“The recent COVID-19 pandemic may push this number further, especially as companies of all sizes look to implement more virtual design into their workflows to minimize human interaction on the production floor,” said Panigrahi in the press release. “It is encouraging that these companies are realizing the benefits that AR/VR offers, but scalability offers great challenges in many cases.”

Covid’s Impact on the Rise of VR in the Automotive Industry

While Ford immersed its design efforts into a virtual world, the automotive industry also was forced to do a virtual pivot in other sectors as Covid’s devastating economic wave swamped the retail and manufacturing industries.

Consumers were no longer visiting dealership lots to test drive new automobiles or preview new models in showrooms. As the shelter-in-place mandates took hold, many left their homes only for the essentials. And when cities slowly reopened, sanitizing and social distancing also meant limitations to the shopping experience.

In response, car shopping went virtual. Dealerships offered those on the hunt for a new car a shopping experience powered by virtual reality technology. Some offered shoppers an online virtual test drive, while other apps let individuals schedule in-person test drives. Business Insider reported that dealerships also were bringing cars to individuals at home for a scheduled test drive.

Virtual showrooms popped up online and provided shoppers with a unique glimpse of the dealership inventory. Companies like Relay Cars offered virtual showrooms that allowed shoppers to view the interior and exterior of different makes/models and even change paint hues.

Convenience was a key factor in these virtual options. When consumers felt uncomfortable leaving home to shop, the experience had to alter to meet these needs. Of course, the pandemic forced the hand of many industries, too, concerning virtual options.

Survival meant evolving to the unique climate and to the changing demands of the buyer. Dealerships had to abide by the state and local mandates related to Covid restrictions, but they also had to find a way to stay afloat. Virtual reality was safe, convenient and allowed for business to continue.

Design, Convenience and the Future of VR After Covid

Ford continued to design models in virtual reality during Covid, dealerships opted for VR tours and showrooms and buyers went online to shop for a new car. But will these trends continue post-pandemic?

No one in the industry can predict what will or won’t happen with absolute certainty. However, Ford and other manufacturers utilized virtual reality before the pandemic. This trend will likely continue after the pandemic subsides. While Piaskowski noted that clay will remain necessary in the design phase, the use of VR allows directors a chance to explore new models in a different realm.

Virtual reality enables a different three-dimensional view, and while, unlike clay, it isn’t a tangible material, VR does offer another form of exploration. Directors and leadership can step inside a virtual space and point to design flaws or explore different vantage points of a design. Models can be rotated and viewed in a familiar setting.

When the world seemingly stopped, VR technology allowed business to continue. Designs that could have been abruptly halted had Covid hit 20 years ago could continue to be explored and revised. Designers could tweak elements, and leadership teams could counsel and discuss options to improve models.

Virtual reality also will likely continue to have a firm footing on the automotive shopping experience, too. For the past several months, consumers have shifted to a new way of shopping and making purchases. While online shopping was already a leading force in the retail world, Covid forced many businesses to pivot to this virtual experience.

Now consumers find that they can easily visit a dealership online and view different cars remotely. Before Covid, shopping for a car meant visiting a dealership, walking through the lot to inspect different models and then taking a test drive. Sometimes consumers may have felt pressure to make their decision promptly or maybe simply didn’t like the experience of the in-person car buying experience.

With the onset of virtual reality for showrooms and test drives, the power shifted more to the consumer. Suddenly, shopping for a car could be relaxed. Looking through the inventory could be a leisurely experience done while having lunch or sitting in bed at night. Test drives could be scheduled online or via an app, and the model for that test drive could be delivered to the consumer. Even financing could be approved online.

After Covid, many consumers may continue to shop virtually—even for bigger purchases like an automobile. The ease of clicking a vehicle, changing a paint hue and scheduling a virtual test drive may appeal to those who simply don’t have the time to visit a dealership.

However, other consumers may have hesitated to explore the online shopping experience for an automobile. While dealerships moved to online experiences during Covid, some consumers might not have felt comfortable with a virtual experience. For these consumers, there may always be a preference for in-person shopping.

The impact of Covid, however, may have forever altered the automotive world and paved the way for further virtual upgrades. The rise of VR may impact other areas of the industry in ways no one can predict. VR has already been utilized for safety tests. In addition, Porsche’s “Tech Live Look” incorporates virtual reality to help technicians with repairs.

In the future, the automotive industry may see slick new test drive experiences where consumers can experience new models in a road environment of their choice. In fact, BMW already offered a virtual test drive on Mars! Virtual reality could be used in programs that actually take consumers into the showroom with a virtual salesperson.

The future that many are awaiting, though, is the self-driving car—a vehicle powered by virtual reality. No one can accurately predict where the future will drive us, but virtual reality may likely hold the keys and take over the driver’s seat.