Earlier this week, Volvo revealed a partnership with Epic Games, the producers of the Unreal Engine and, among other things, Fortnite, to bring the company’s next-generation rendering technologies to the car for “photorealistic” graphics on in-car displays. Volvo’s next electric flagship, scheduled to debut later this year, will be its first product to benefit from the collaboration.
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It’s a strange ad; As much as automakers like to tout the improved speed and ease of use of their latest interfaces, the Unreal Engine will be used to deliver “sharper renderings, richer colors, and entirely new 3D animations.” Amid all the technological headaches modern cars cause their owners, I have to say I’ve never heard anyone complain that “the colors on the screen just don’t work.” pop enough.”
Indeed, in its press release announcing the partnership, Volvo sounds less like a carmaker and more like a gaming startup. Those aforementioned visual benefits are supposedly just the beginning “as Volvo Cars developers continue to push the graphical envelope.” At the same time, the Swedish brand promises that none of these visual innovations will come at the expense of its historic commitment to safety, telling The Verge that “incorrectly distracting the driver” is unacceptable.
The only obvious practical benefit of “next generation graphics” in a car relates to how the vehicle uses them to communicate with passengers. And in the case of Volvo, a company that focuses on electric vehicles and semi-autonomous transportation, the Unreal Engine would be less useful for “photorealism,” as the release says, and more for rendering speed.
Any modern car with assisted driving features attempts to model a vague, symbolic recreation of the road ahead to inform the driver of obstacles it has seen via sensors and cameras. That’s because in this hazy world we live in, where “cars can drive themselves,” it’s not just important that your car sees a tree on the road; it is also important that your to know your car sees a tree on the road.
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Anything that speeds up that sensing-to-rendering pipeline is helpful, and maybe there’s something in Unreal Engine 5 or whatever version Epic is developing for cars that makes that easier. It sounds like that could be part of the ambition here, based on a video posted by Epic detailing how Volvo plans to use the technology, embedded below.
Beyond that though, I can’t imagine how more realistic graphics will transform the Volvo driving experience. Or make it markedly different from, say, Rivian, whose trucks also use the Unreal Engine. Okay, so maybe the digital model of the C40 Recharge you see on the center screen while sitting in a C40 Recharge uses physics-based rendering and ray tracing, so it will look very close to the real thing. And if you open the crossover’s actual liftgate, the liftgate on the model will open as well, conveying the same value of information as an instrument cluster icon with a goofy LED behind it. It will be prettier though, that’s for sure.
One more point: depending on how far Volvo plans to push “photorealism”, this could all be very resource intensive. The automaker doesn’t say precisely which version of Unreal it plans to use, but Epic’s latest release is well-built to put it mildly, even for high-end gaming PCs. On the other hand, some manufacturers are leaning toward putting full GPUs in their cars, so maybe computing power isn’t an issue.