Ford engineers have developed a robotic test driving program – now in use at the company’s Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich. The pilot program has been used most recently for durability testing of Ford’s all-new full-size Transit van, which launches in 2014.
(Click here to see an example of robotic testing.)
“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,” said 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. 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.”
The durability technology includes a robotic control module installed in the test vehicle that controls vehicle steering, acceleration and braking. The module is set to follow a preprogrammed course, and the vehicle’s position is tracked via cameras in a central control room and GPS accurate to plus/minus one inch. 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.
The robotically driven vehicles are expected to repeatedly perform tests on torturous surfaces, and 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 oversized speed bumps, according to the automaker.
All North American Ford trucks must pass this battery of durability tests before they’re certified for customer use. 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, according to Ford. The use of robots now accelerates this testing, allowing an unlimited number of repeats until Ford engineers are satisfied with the results. Robots also allow Ford to develop even more challenging durability tests to build tougher trucks.
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.