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ESSLINGEN, Germany – The use of hardware-in-the-loop vehicle simulators, or virtual vehicles, is spreading from European auto makers to their U.S. and Asian counterparts, says dSpace GmbH, a Germany-based supplier of automotive testing equipment.

Modern vehicles are chocked full of electronic control units (ECU), which typically act as the “brain” for one or more specific functions.

In the past, each system had to be tested manually by using large rooms laid out with various vehicular systems hardwired to each other. Engineers would test each component manually, sometimes activating two or more at a time to see how they react to one another.

That process is time consuming, costly and not always successful in preventing bugs in production vehicles.

HIL simulators eliminate the need for manually testing components by virtually recreating automotive systems and respective functions using powerful simulation software.

Herbert Hanselmann, president and CEO of dSpace, says European auto makers, such as Audi AG, were the first to embrace HIL vehicle simulators.

The traditional Big Three were next onboard, and Japanese auto makers were the last to adopt the technology, he says.

“Japan is just now starting big HIL simulations,” Hanselmann says during a media supplier tour here. “Previously the Japanese were more conventional, more mechanical than their European counterparts. That’s changing.”

Hanselmann and a contingent from dSpace will be showcasing the latest in HIL technology at the upcoming 2007 SAE International World Congress, scheduled for April 16-19 at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

To illustrate the potential savings by using HIL simulators, Hanselmann points to Audi’s claim that its warranty costs dropped 55% in vehicles that underwent HIL testing prior to production.

Meanwhile, auto makers continue reducing the complexity of their vehicles by trimming back on the number of ECUs they use.

“It has happened, and is happening, but not very quickly,” Hanselmann says. “One reason is that car makers purchase systems from many suppliers, and each comes with its own ECU.”

To circumvent the problem, many auto makers and suppliers are working to adopt the Autosar (Automotive Open System Architecture) initiative, a German-led consortium uniting OEMs and suppliers from all tiers. Autosar is a key program in the movement toward common automotive electrical/electronic architectures.

“This will technically allow placing software which belongs to a certain system from a supplier into the ECU of another supplier,” he says, noting intellectual property and supplier responsibility issues also must be addressed.