It's a nice little drive. You cruise through a small town, stop at a light, turn a few corners, then hit the open highway. But, boy, is it ever dark. It's a good thing the headlights work. They illuminate the road and all the various road signs really well, so there are no surprises.

Well, actually there is one surprise, it's all a computer simulation: the car, the road and the headlights only exist as mathematical data. There are no physical prototypes.

Guide Corp., the big automotive lighting supplier that was spun off from General Motors Corp. in late 1998, hopes to use this visualization technology — dubbed Fastforward — to cut costs, lead times and ultimately win new customers.

Guide isn't the only lighting supplier offering this type of virtual prototyping technology to automakers, but Jeffrey D. Mickel, senior vice president of Engineering, Sales & Marketing claims that it currently is the most accurate available for predicting how new headlight designs will perform in the real world. That's a big deal to OEM customers who are trying to shave 36-month vehicle development times down to 18 months or less.

Guide officials don't broach the subject, but a number of major automakers have suffered from customer complaints about poor headlight performance in recent years. In most cases, the headlights met all the necessary technical requirements and safety standards, but just didn't give drivers the impression they were getting enough light in the right places.

Guide officials say their family of software tools allows engineers to design and then very accurately test drive a wide variety of new headlight lamp designs without the time and expense of building actual physical mock-ups. The “Dynamic Road Scene” element of the Fastforward software simulates a lamp's performance on the roadway from the driver's perspective, allowing engineers to hopefully perfect beam patterns that not only meet stringent engineering criteria, but also inspire more confidence in drivers.

The big challenge is convincing OEM customers that the visualization tools do indeed correlate precisely with the real world.

“We have proven confidence in these tools,” Mr. Mickel says. “We know we have the technology, accuracy and ability to provide virtual prototypes today. Our biggest job in the coming months is to help OEMs gain the comfort to embrace this new technology and the savings it can offer.”