Exclusive Car Industry

Inside GM's 360-degree vehicle testing simulator

Before hitting the road, new General Motors vehicle features are validated here.

General Motors

Deep in the bowels of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan sits one of the automaker's two 360-degree simulators. At first glance, the hulking machine looks like the world's greatest racing video game rig -- one that would be the cornerstone of an ultimate man cave. Here at GM, however, it serves as a vital tool for testing and development of new vehicle features.

Simulators aren't a new thing in the car world -- manufacturers and race teams use them extensively for testing. But GM was a trailblazer when it came to using the technology, beginning in the 1960s. Since then, they've gone through five generations of simulators, with their current 360-degree systems in use for eight years now.

GM began using simulators for testing in the 1960s.

General Motors

In the tech world, eight years is an eternity, but there have been extensive upgrades to the simulator along the way. According to Gary Bertollini , staff researcher for information display and simulation at GM, the system originally featured a fixed base, but now sports a movable one capable of jerking a full-size car around to simulate roll, pitch and yaw.

Visuals have also been upgraded with a 5-terabyte-per-second image generator with 4K resolution, allowing for response to steering and pedal force inputs to take place within 50 milliseconds. Previously, the system featured a 2-terabyte-per-second image generator and input response within 70 milliseconds.

Bertollini wasn't able to put a dollar amount on how much the simulator costs with the continuous improvements over the years, but the surely significant investment is worthwhile to quickly test and refine features in a safe and secure environment. Notable items that have made their way through the simulator for testing and development include the Cadillac Super Cruise in the CT6 sedan and the transmission shift systems in the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Bolt and GMC Terrain.

Sadly, during our exclusive look at the simulator, it wasn't setup for an actual driving demo, but for a ride along to evaluate different autonomous driving programs. The drive character ranged from overly cautious to aggressive styles. During the simulations, people in the control room monitor everything I say, facial expressions and biometrics to determine how I feel about the experience.

In the cautious simulation, I feel annoyed by the gingerly launches and slow tiptoeing through the scenario that takes place on virtually recreated GM Tech Center campus roads. During the aggressive simulation, I feel like a jerk as the autonomous car blows through pedestrian crossings without stopping to let people cross.

Sensing my disappointment in not participating in a hands-on driving demo, Bertollini dials-up a few extra runs through the autonomous exercises with additional platform movement. At first a few bumps here and there are added with the last run being an extremely violent ride to recreate a trip down pothole-littered Midwest roads, which is fun.

Want to play in the GM simulator? Prepare to be monitored.

General Motors

What's next for the 360-degree simulator? More testing of course with roughly 60 percent of its time used to perform tests and the other 40 percent used to prepare it for the studies, but Bertollini is eyeing more performance improvements as well. He says more realistic controls of pedestrians, brighter images and higher frame rates are all on his wish list.

Hopefully, he gets his wish to give me an excuse to go back and experience the simulator again. Maybe then I'll be able to do some actual simulation driving and fire up Gran Turismo or Forza, too.

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