Argonne Software Tool Enables Virtual Automotive Design

AyR_in front of computer

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, is helping make possible the green revolution in cars and trucks. More than 150 vehicle manufacturers, automotive suppliers, federal agencies and others have been granted licenses to use an Argonne-created computer modeling tool that significantly minimizes the need to build physical prototypes of engines, electric motors, and other powertrain components.

With more than 1,000 possible combinations of technologies for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, prototyping even a limited number would be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Argonne's software tool, Autonomie, which is both copyrighted and has a patent pending, enables automakers to "plug in" the computer model of a particular powertrain component to see quickly and efficiently how its interaction with other components would affect a vehicle's overall performance, fuel economy, and cost. Since automakers typically need to make tradeoffs among those three attributes, Autonomie helps find the right combinations of systems and subsystems for different vehicles early in the vehicle development process.

In addition to modeling the physical aspects of powertrains and related components, Autonomie also allows engineers to develop low-level controls for components, as well as high-level controls, ones that, for example, decide when to switch between the engine and the electric motor in a hybrid.

"The goal is to help engineers and automakers expedite the evaluation process, thereby accelerating the introduction of new technologies," Autonomie developer Aymeric Rousseau wrote on Autopia, a blog of Wired magazine. "Complete models can be built in minutes instead of days or weeks. Since models are consistently updated and modified, the total amount of time saved over the length of a project can be significant. With Autonomie, the hope is to make it easier to get next-generation technologies on the road."

One way Autonomie does that is by allowing an automaker's various design groups to integrate their models. The software not only enables interoperability, but encourages collaboration across an organization, which speeds time to market, said Argonne research engineer Shane Halbach. "If all those groups come together, they can look at it from a whole-vehicle perspective rather than just with their one component."

Traditional design paradigms in the automotive industry often delay control-system design until late in the process, in some cases requiring several costly hardware iterations. To reduce costs and improve time to market, it is imperative that greater emphasis be placed on modeling and simulation. This is particularly true with the increasing complexity of vehicles and the greater number of vehicle configurations.

Autonomie began as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with General Motors (GM). GM wanted a next-generation automotive simulation tool to address the increasing need for virtual engineering. In 2007, GM approached Argonne to partner on the development of the new tool. Argonne developed the vehicle simulation tool to handle flexible architectures, while GM provided expertise about software control development and feedback on the tool.

After a successful demonstration with a few targeted programs, GM is now deploying Autonomie worldwide to support production control development. GM has told Argonne that the partnership was one of its most successful ever with the U.S. government.

Among Autonomie's licensees are universities around the world who use the classroom teaching version. The software is also used by college students who are participating in EcoCAR, a three-year advanced vehicle technology engineering competition, for which teams of students build cars and use Autonomie to compare and select powertrains. Established by the Department of Energy and GM, the contest is managed by Argonne.

Paul Betten of the Argonne Technology Transfer Office said that Autonomie's use by universities and students is helping to train future engineers and promote energy-efficient transportation systems design.

By building models automatically, Autonomie allows the simulation of a very large number of component technologies and powertrain configurations. Its capabilities include simulating systems, subsystems, or entire vehicles; predicting fuel efficiency and performance; and performing analyses and tests for virtual calibration, verification, and validation of hardware models and control algorithms.

The computer modeling software developed by Argonne is not limited to the automotive industry. Autonomie could be used to model systems in a wide variety of applications, ranging from ships and airplanes to factories and nuclear reactors. Indeed, the modular plug-and-play approach of the tool makes it suitable to analyze any energy-related system.