Volvo will be the latest automaker to harness the graphical capabilities of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. The Swedish automaker said it would work with them Fourteen days Creator to bring “photorealistic visualization” to its next generation of electric vehicles.
At the core of the partnership between Volvo and Epic will be the “Human Machine Interface” (HMI), which in the context of vehicle ownership is another way of describing the way car owners interact with their vehicle’s software. Volvo says Epic will help build a platform on which the automaker’s engineers can develop software that improves the HMI while maintaining the level of safety on which Volvo has built much of its reputation.
“This technology gives us the ability to create responsive, really high-quality visuals that we can play with and overlay information, create realistic displays when needed, all those things,” said Thomas Stovicek, head of user experience at Volvo Autos. “So it’s really about developing the next generation of HMI for our customers.”
Security will be a key aspect of the new partnership, Stovicek said. Over the years, the company has built its reputation on safety and quirky designs, and today’s announcement aims to underscore that. Ideally, Volvo would like to use the Unreal Engine to render what the car’s external sensors, like camera, radar and soon lidar, see outside the car for drivers without being “overwhelming”, he said, adding: “It can be difficult to make.”
Other information, such as navigation and battery life, and how that information is presented, such as light, color, and motion graphics, will be improved thanks to the collaboration with Epic Gamers, Stovicek said.
The Unreal Engine is Epic’s primary tool for creating realistic 3D graphics, first featured in the 1998 first-person shooter Unreal. Since then, it has been used in a variety of gaming genres and has been adopted by other industries, most notably the film and television industries.
The auto industry is a particularly attractive target for Epic Games, largely because cars are easier to render realistically than humans. (Which also speaks to the popularity and spread of racing games.) Most recently, Epic said it would work with GMC to provide HMI software for the 2022 Hummer EV pickup truck.
But Epic is becoming increasingly interested in the automotive industry. The logic is simple: modern cars are developed primarily using software and carry dozens of onboard computers that rely on touchscreens and digital interfaces to power infotainment centers. And Unreal Engine is a great platform for building software, so why not put that software in cars?
“With the new hardware coming into cars, it became very attractive to look at the car as an additional platform that we should acknowledge,” said Heiko Wenczel, head of Epic Games’ Detroit lab, though “from HMI Perspective an interaction point that reveals what game features can actually contribute to in-car user experiences.”
Neither Volvo nor Epic would say which vehicles will be the first to feature the software powered by the Unreal Engine, or what kind of timeline customers should expect when these features roll out across the wider Volvo fleet.
Volvo plans to sell 600,000 electric vehicles by mid-decade and set up battery manufacturing in Europe by 2026. According to the company, it is working with its Swedish partner Northvolt on a new generation of batteries with higher energy density integrated as a structural element of the vehicle. The new batteries, due after 2025, allow for longer range between charges — up to 625 miles (1,006 kilometers) — and much faster charge times.
Volvo is also bringing software development in-house to speed up the delivery of new updates to the company’s fleet or to fix bugs in the system. Dubbed VolvoCars.OS, the new operating system will power the company’s next generation of electric vehicles and enable unattended driving on highways.
The new OS will act as an “umbrella system” for all underlying systems working in the vehicle, including Android Automotive OS, Blackberry’s QNX, Linux and AUTOSAR. The company said its new architecture will feature a core computer consisting of two systems-on-a-chip provided by Nvidia. First, one focuses on core driving functions and the other on semi-autonomous functions and advanced functions. In the future, Volvo hopes to combine the two computers into one system for more efficient processing.
Ultimately, Volvo wants Epic Games’ help in modernizing its next-gen vehicles, while acknowledging that feature bloat is a real concern. Significantly sharper renderings, richer colors and brand new 3D animations are of course included. But anything that distracts the driver is not part of the package.
“There’s nothing off the table for us,” said Stovicek. “But of course it’s important for us that we introduce it at the right time and at the same time make sure that we have a safe driving experience and don’t distract the driver in the wrong way.”