IN the world of motor sports, the British firm McLaren has a distinguished record of innovation, from the use of carbon fiber to create ultralight, ultra strong chassis to pioneering a single device to control a car’s electrical systems, engine and gearbox.
An even bigger game-changer may lie ahead.
McLaren, which invented a sophisticated simulator system for designing and testing its Formula One cars and sports cars, has begun marketing the technology to mainstream automakers. It says the system could radically improve the speed and efficiency of developing ordinary cars.
The simulator can incorporate intricately detailed digital models of cars down to every mechanical component and body panel, and it allows McLaren’s drivers and engineers to test different configurations back to back under precisely controlled simulated track conditions.
Without the simulator, comparing the performance of different components in real-world testing requires a racing team to stop the car, take out the component and replace it with another — even as track conditions change, becoming hotter, cooler, wetter or drier.
But with the simulator, “it takes a second,” said Caroline Hargrove, technical director at McLaren Applied Technologies, which supplies Formula One technology and expertise to companies in a range of industries. In fact, components can be swapped in and out of the simulator even as the driver is powering the digital car around a digital track.
McLaren, which entered its first Formula One race in 1966, began developing its simulator in 1998 at the direction of its team principal, Martin Whitmarsh. He had worked at British Aerospace, which used simulators to train pilots on military aircraft like its Tornado fighter-bomber, and saw that the technology could be equally useful for racecar development.
Dr. Hargrove, an engineer with expertise in modeling, simulation and data analysis, led the effort from the company’s headquarters in Woking, Surrey, an hour southwest of the center of London.
“What we wanted to do was build a simulator that was useful for designing cars, not just training the drivers,” Dr. Hargrove said. “The big difference here is if you want to design the car with it, it has to be very accurate. At the time, there were none to go around and learn from. What we learned from was jet fighter simulators.”
With their simulators, McLaren’s engineers can choose the precise conditions in which to test specific components or combinations thereof, factoring in variable degrees of rainfall, or gradual changes in temperature.
The ability to control track conditions is crucial, said Geoff McGrath, the chief innovation officer for McLaren Applied Technologies. “Because some of the improvements people work on are so small, it’s very hard to detect them when we take a car out on the road,” he said. “The sim gives us the ability to test or measure very tiny interventions in a controlled environment.”
Over time, the virtual testing has grown increasingly accurate. As prototypes are tested on a track, sensors pick up data that is fed back into a digital model, which is retested in the simulator. “It’s a process of getting closer to reality,” Dr. McGrath said. “You never actually get there. But you get close enough.”
The simulator’s impact on McLaren’s race car development has been stark. “Before we used the simulator, at least 80 percent of the designs — which we machined and tested — we threw those designs away,” Dr. McGrath said. “Only 20 percent would get through and actually make it to the race car itself. Now that we use the sim, it’s the other way around.”
Even cutting-edge technology is not a short cut to the top, of course. McLaren has not had the dominant position in recent years that it held in the 1980s in the Formula One rankings, known as the Constructors’ Championships. Still, it scored 11 top-three finishes from 2000 to 2012.
Over the years, McLaren’s technology has become a product in its own right, with other racing teams as customers. “We set up a managed service for a whole range of race teams to test their cars,” Dr. McGrath said. (He declined to name the teams, citing confidentiality agreements.) “We were able to help them accelerate the pace of development and performance way faster than they would have done if they had to work from scratch and build their own sim.”
That experience gave McLaren the idea of marketing the system to the auto industry at large. While many automakers use simulators for tasks like assessing driver behavior or virtual crash testing, McLaren says its own tools would extend the possibilities to end-to-end development. “We hired people from most of those companies for our simulation team, so we know what their simulators are not capable of,” Dr. McGrath said.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of McLaren’s simulator system, now in its third generation, is its flexibility. It can accommodate models of vehicles ranging from Formula One cars and sports cars — like McLaren’s 650S, which sells for $273,000 — to family sedans and sport utility vehicles.
To market the system, McLaren formed a partnership with MTS, a company specializing in large-scale car testing equipment. While some automakers may want only the simulator’s motion platform or other individual components, Dr. McGrath said, “the big prize is to sell the whole simulation system.”
Francisco Veloso, dean of the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, who has studied the use of virtualization tools in the auto industry, was cautious about the potential to replicate McLaren’s efficiency an industrial scale.
“Doing it at a broader level with global supply chains, it does take very sophisticated suppliers as well, and that is a different challenge,” he said. “They would have to rethink the development process to really incorporate these in a productive way.”
But with a simulator costing less than $10 million, Dr. McGrath said automakers could see a return on their investment in the first year, with additional savings as they become more adept at using the technology. He said he was confident it could cut development time in half.
In the meantime, McLaren is exploring applications for simulators far beyond the realm of motor sports and transportation — like surgery.
With surgeons as with fighter pilots, “we can’t train you to have quick reactions,” Dr. McGrath said. “It’s something intrinsic in you. We use simulators to find these people out.”