The human body is a delicate thing and it can only take so much physical abuse. So, to protect its drivers--and test the limits of its trucks' durability--Ford's engineers developed the industry’s first robotic test-driving program, which is now in use at the carmaker's proving grounds in Romeo, Michigan, in the US.
"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 Ford vehicle development operations manager Dave Payne. "The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development timelines 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."
According to Ford, the technology includes a robotic control module that's installed in the test vehicle and controls its steering, acceleration and braking. The module is programmed to follow a predetermined course with the vehicle's position being tracked by cameras in a central control room and through GPS that's accurate to one inch. If the vehicle strays off its course, engineers can stop the vehicle, course-correct as necessary, and restart the test. Onboard sensors can also command the vehicle to come to a full stop if a pedestrian or another vehicle strays into the path.
The American carmaker added that the tests the vehicles are subjected to "compress 10 years of daily driving abuse into courses just a few hundred yards long," with surfaces that vary in severity, like broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversized speed bumps.
For Ford, the robotic technology accomplishes two goals: to protect human drivers and to engineer its trucks to be tougher than ever.
"The goal here was not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets," shared Payne. "Our objective was to create a test-track solution that allows for this type of intense testing that could take our vehicles to the most extreme limits of their engineering while ensuring the safety of all involved."
Who knows how much tougher the Ford Ranger would be if it were developed using this robotic technology?
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