The new Land Rover Discovery (2017) is a feat of virtual engineering

This year’s Paris Motor Show was full of superfast concept cars and innovative technology, but the Land Rover Discovery was still one of the most important cars unveiled in the French capital last week. Although it looks pretty conventional on the outside, it was developed using sophisticated simulation technology that you’d usually associate with F1.

The new Land Rover Discovery (2017) is a feat of virtual engineering

The Land Rover Discovery has become iconic for both its design and off-road performance, and the latest update to the 26-year-old 4×4 is the most advanced yet. Auto Express has already written everything you need to know about the finished car here, but one of the most interesting things about the new 2017 Land Rover Discovery happened before it even left the factory. Instead of using a succession of prototypes or physical models, much of the Land Rover Discovery was designed – and tested – using software.

Virtually designed

Simply put, “virtual engineering” is the practice of using software to test parts, and Exa Corporation is one of the world leaders in the field. “‘Virtual engineering’ involves the digital simulation and analysis of fluid flow early in the product-development process,” explains Exa CEO, Steve Remondi.“It can be used for aerodynamic, aeroacoustic and thermal-management testing.”

Sure, it’s no alternative to actually testing physical things, and manufacturers still do that too – but in the early stages of development, when concepts are in their infancy and you can come across some serious design dead-ends, virtual engineering has serious benefits.new_land_rover_discovery_2017_2

The benefits

Regardless of how big a car company is, cost-saving is always necessary – and “virtual engineering” can really save money. “Physical prototypes are extremely expensive to build – approximately $250,000 to $1 million per vehicle. With 50-70 test prototypes built per development programme, carmakers collectively spend $10 billion per year producing them,” says Remondi. “Virtual engineering can cut these costs by one-third, by reducing late-stage testing and enabling result verification earlier in the design process.”

Prototypes also take time to make, and if they show a design isn’t viable, it takes even more time to manufacture another component of a different design. In contrast, virtual engineering gives you a quick result, allowing you to tweak and change your design in far less time. That’s why in Formula 1 – a sport with extremely tight deadlines – simulations are slowly being used more and more. It’s only after designs have proved themselves worthy on the computer that they’re actually 3D-printed or manufactured.

Outside of F1, French sports car manufacturer Onroak Automotive used only Exa software to produce its Ligier JS P3 racer, and Remondi informs me: “It was designed and engineered entirely in the digital world, without a single prototype built in the development stage.”

Car manufacturers can also use software to accurately predict all sorts of things, including fuel economy – which is particularly relevant after VW’s “dieselgate” scandal.

“Virtual engineering gives carmakers the ability to predict real-world performance early in the development process, reducing late-stage design changes by allowing important decisions between design and engineering to be made on a daily basis,” Remondi tells me.“The benefit to the customer is that they’ll be buying a car that performs as promised.”


Virtually designing the 2017 Land Rover Discovery

It’s for these reasons that Jaguar Land Rover designed much of the Discovery before a single part was made. “Exa’s PowerFLOW software was used extensively from the early design stages, for creating an aerodynamic design as well as for engine cooling airflow and brake-cooling systems,” Land Rover said in a statement. “Over 1,000 simulations were run during the course of development for tackling items such as the air curtain, slotted spoiler, aero wheels, dirt, and water management.”

Alongside Land Rover, Renault and Tesla are using virtual engineering for more and more of their design processes – but I still don’t think we’ll see a road car that’s developed solely by simulation. And that’s because when it comes to final decision, engineers trust physical data far more than any computer.

In an interview last year, Andy Cowell, managing director of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, told me that while simulations are used for early parts of the design process, it’s real-world figures and cracked or failed components that decisions are ultimately based on. Still, it looks like virtual engineering is here to stay, so it’s possible your next car could be developed using F1 technology.

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