Ford Motor Co. says its engineers have developed the industry's first robotic test-driving program.
At Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich., the automaker has been using robot test drivers to put new trucks through their paces.
"Some of the tests we do on our commercial trucks for North America are so strenuous that we limit the exposure time for human drivers," says Dave Payne, Ford's manager of vehicle-development operations.
"The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle-development timelines while keeping our drivers comfortable."
Robots enable the automaker to do both.
"We accelerate durability testing while simultaneously increasing the productivity of our other programs by redeploying drivers to those areas, such as noise-level and vehicle-dynamics testing," Payne says.
The durability technology includes a module installed in the test vehicle that controls vehicle steering, acceleration and braking.
The robotic control module is set to follow a pre-programmed course. Cameras in a central control room track the vehicle's position, with GPS accuracy to plus or minus 1 inch, according to Ford.
If the vehicle strays from its programmed course, engineers have the ability to stop the vehicle, course correct as necessary and restart the test. Onboard sensors can command a full stop if a pedestrian or another vehicle strays into the path.
A Decade of Driving Abuse
The robotically driven vehicles are expected to repeatedly perform tests on torturous surfaces with names such as "Silver Creek," "Power Hop Hill" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
The tests can compress 10 years of daily driving abuse into courses just a few hundred yards long, with surfaces that include broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversize speed bumps.
All North American Ford trucks must pass the battery of durability tests before they're certified for customer use, according to the automaker.
Until now, testing speeds and repetitions for specific scenarios were limited due to restrictions placed on human drivers, who were allowed to drive certain rigorous courses only once a day.
The use of robots now accelerates such testing, allowing an unlimited number of repeats until Ford engineers are satisfied with the results.
Robots also enable Ford to develop more challenging durability tests to build tougher trucks, the automaker says.
Ford engineers worked with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. to design and manufacture the software and components that enable autonomous, robotic operation of the test vehicle.