Test driving pre-production cars is one of the most fun jobs in the world. Mainly because you get paid to just drive around, and also because it is a crucial part of a car’s development process. But it can become wearisome for human beings, especially when it comes to testing the durability of commercial vehicles. That is why Ford has developed an intelligent robotic system for the job.
Robots don’t get tired, they don’t mind doing a task over and over again, and they can perform it virtually without fault. Already in use at Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds for durability testing of Ford’s all-new full-size Transit van, this industry-first robot has showed promising performance.
Unlike human test drivers, robots do not need to take brakes, and that reduces the testing and development time. What’s more, they are perfectly happy in conditions that are too rigorous for humans, and are far more accurate as well. They test the cars on broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversized speed bumps. They can cram 10 years worth of daily driving abuse in a few hundred yards.
Autonomous driving is seen as the future of motoring, and such projects, even if they are not meant for road use, can contribute to accomplishing that goal. Ford’s system uses a robotic control module installed in the test vehicle that controls vehicle steering, acceleration and braking. It is controlled by a vast array of sensors and cameras which keep it within the confines of a pre-programmed course. The vehicle’s position is tracked via cameras in a central control room and GPS accurate to plus/minus one inch. The operator has the ability to take over at any time and change the path or stop the car.
“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, manager, vehicle development operations. “The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable. “Robotic testing allows us to do both,” he says. “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.”