Automakers use virtual reality to cut the development time for vehicles like the Hummer EV

  • GM developed the 2022 GMC Hummer EV in rapid time with help of virtual reality, an increasing trend for the automotive industry before and during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • GM CEO Mary Barra called the Hummer EV's process a "new benchmark in GM's ability to quickly bring EV products to market."
  • Most, if not all, major automakers found new ways of working remotely using such technologies during the global health crisis.

General Motors developed the 2022 GMC Hummer EV in rapid time with help of virtual reality, an increasing trend for the automotive industry before and during the coronavirus pandemic.

GM CEO Mary Barra called the Hummer EV's process a "new benchmark in GM's ability to quickly bring EV products to market" on Twitter. What historically took GM and other automakers five to seven years to develop and launch a new vehicle is expected to be cut to under three years for the Hummer EV.

That's important because it allows the automaker to bring more new or redesigned vehicles to market in a timelier fashion. New products typically mean increased sales as well as better profits. 

The rapid development is a combination of prioritizing the vehicle; a new modular electric vehicle architecture; and a host of new processes and tools, including virtual reality, that allow employees to work more quickly as well as remotely. Such virtual processes for GM and other automakers are expected to continue going forward.

"Our leadership has challenged us to bring the Hummer EV to market fast, using our analytical tools, our computer-aided engineering and less physical vehicle testing, which is where we are at right now," said Al Oppenheiser, chief engineer of the Hummer EV. "That is going to become the norm for every program at GM."

GM developed a prototype for the Hummer EV sport utility truck, or SUT, in about 18 months. While testing and validation continue, GM is expected to begin producing the Hummer EV next fall – roughly two and a half years after GM started working on the vehicle April 1, 2019.

VR tech

GM's employees on the Hummer and other vehicles have been able to work together from their homes using a suite of resources that, in some cases, enabled them to make changes and decisions more quickly than usual.

This has included virtually engineering and designing vehicles as well as review processes with executives. For the Hummer EV, the primary method for the "theme creation" and selection of the vehicle's interior was virtual reality, mainly prior to the pandemic.

No scale models or clay busts – traditional methods of design for automakers – were used during initial selection of the Hummer EV's interior, according to GM. Such traditional physical elements were eventually used in combination with the virtual technologies.

Michael McBride, global director of GM's design business operations, which includes immersive technologies, said the company moved quickly to increase investment and availability in such technologies early in the pandemic.

"As we go forward, you'll just continue to hear us talk more and more about using it on various products," he told CNBC. "I think it had already stuck before as a way we're going to do work, but I think this has accelerated the adoption of it and maybe the acceptance of it moving forward."

GM even duplicated traditional work stations for employees at their homes. It's a process he expects the company to continue using on future vehicles with or without a global pandemic.

GM declined to say how much it invested in the technology. But the company is in the midst of a multibillion effort that started in 2012 to in-source and transform the company's information technology, or IT, operations. It provided the backbone for GM's operations to effectively work remotely.

"We were able to hit our milestones through the use of the tech even when we weren't able to physically be present in the office or the studio," said Bryan Styles, who leads GM's immersive technology unit. "It's a pretty big testament to the team's ability to use the individual tools."

Engineers and designers also have been using the systems for vehicle walkarounds with executives regarding updates and approvals. Some users are avatars in the virtual world, while others monitor on computers.

"It really does take it to the next level when you can't physically be present," Styles said. "It's been an amazing opportunity to really be able to leverage the tech and see not only what's possible today but ultimately where we could be going with it."

'I've never seen better work'

GM wasn't the only one to mobilize its design and research and development teams during the pandemic. Most, if not all, automakers found new ways of working remotely. For the Detroit automakers, it was about maintaining as much work flow.

For the Detroit automakers, it was about effectively maintaining as much work flow as possible. The companies are now evaluating what processes will continue to be used to increase collaboration and speed up product development.

At Ford Motor, an internal digital design team made digital environments and set up the computer aided design-generated models in the environment to allow virtual reviews to happen by design leadership.

The same virtual reality technology was used in reviews for past Ford design programs but increased during the pandemic. Most notably on the Bronco program for executive reviews and to simulate Bronco's open-air roof experience.

"Virtual reality technology has allowed our global design team to assess, review and discuss design programs in the same virtual design studio," Moray Callum, Ford vice president of design, said in an emailed statement. "Long term post-pandemic, I think we will see VR in more designer households as things move to more digital and less physical. We're already seeing this digital perspective from design students."

Rob Wichman, Fiat Chrysler's head of product development for North America, said the company used remote access programs to meet with different teams as well as suppliers during the global health crisis.

"We have virtual design reviews," he told CNBC. "It's live and it's in essence seamless."

The company also installed workstations as well as software testing towers for infotainment and other devices in employees' homes. They also were able to collect and analyze on-road testing of vehicles remotely to assist vehicle engineers.

Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler's global head of design, said having the capability to work remotely assisted in flexibility for employees to work and even increased creativity.

"Honestly, I've never seen better work," he said. "The isolation has actually created some unexpected and positive results in terms of quality of work and work-life balance. There's a lot of behaviors we're going to continue well into the future thanks to this kind of reset in a way."

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