Semi-Automatic Geographic Information System Framework for Creating Photo-Realistic Digital Twin Cities to Support Autonomous Driving Research

Haowen Xu, Yunli Shao, Jianfei Chen, Cheh Wang, Andy Berres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Digital twin cities are frequently used in vehicle and traffic simulations to render realistic on-road driving scenarios under various traffic and environmental conditions. These digital twins provide a high-fidelity replica of the physical world (e.g., buildings, roads, infrastructures, traffic) to create three-dimensional (3D) virtual-physical environments to support various emerging vehicle and transportation technologies such as connected and automated vehicles. These virtual environments provide a cost-effective digital proving ground to evaluate, validate, and test emerging technologies that include control algorithms, localization, perception, and sensors. Replicating a real-world traffic scenario in a digital twin using a traditional 3D modeling approach is a time-consuming and labor-intensive effort. This paper presents a semi-automated spatial framework to construct realistic 3D digital twin cities to support autonomous driving research using readily available geographic information system (GIS) data and 3D prefabricated (prefab) models. We start with a comprehensive review of geospatial data sources of essential digital entities required in a 3D digital twin city and present an integrated GIS-3D modeling pipeline using customized QGIS/GDAL and Blender scripting in Python. The pipeline outputs are realistic 3D digital twin cities compatible with common vehicle simulation software, such as CARLA and IPG CarMaker. The paper closes with a showcase to demonstrate the quality and usability of a digital twin city created to replicate the Shallowford Road corridor in Chattanooga in both Unity and Unreal engine-based virtual environment. The generated digital twin city can be applied to a hardware-in-the-loop simulation environment with an actual testing vehicle to facilitate autonomous driving research.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1068-1084
Number of pages17
JournalTransportation Research Record
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5700-88473


  • data and data science
  • geospatial data visualization
  • interactive visualization
  • visualization in transportation


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