Robots Are Test Driving Your Next Car

At Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds in rural Romeo, Michigan, a quiet revolution in vehicle testing is beginning. Engineers working at the 4,000-acre facility, in collaboration with supplier Autonomous Solutions, have developed a one-of-a-kind system that puts a robot in the driver’s seats of preproduction cars for punishing durability testing.

The phrase “test driver” conjures up images of hotshots pushing sexy, high-performance cars to their absolute limits, but in reality, testing cars is often boring, backbreaking work. Imagine doing a full week of eight-hour days only driving over street curbs at thirty miles per hour.

This is the kind of work that Jeff Bledsoe, Ford’s Durability Technical Specialist, wanted to save his drivers from having to endure. Let robots take over the mind-numbing, dangerous, and harsh tests that are only designed to punish the vehicle, not necessarily provide subjective feedback. And for repetitive tests, robots can perform the same action over and over without any variation. The mining and farming industry have been using robotic drivers that follow a predetermined route with a high degree of autonomy for years, why not apply that to test cars? So Bledsoe, along with Facility Manager Mike Stoeckle and Vehicle Development Operations Manager Dave Payne started tinkering around with the idea after hours, during “bonus time” as they say at Ford.

In 2010, the group got funding to begin the program and partnered with Autonomous Solutions to adapt an off-the-shelf robo-system for the higher speeds and more violent world of automotive durability testing. The basic kit includes an in-vehicle controller box, a servomotor and ring gear that hooks up to the steering wheel, and a set of remote linear actuators that control the brake, throttle, and shifter. A key feature was designing custom mechanisms that would work without modifying a vehicle’s interior, and could be installed in 45 minutes or less. The real challenge was to get it to function on Ford’s property. The proving ground is home to the highest elevation in the surrounding area, as well as plenty wooded areas and roaming wildlife, not to mention humans driving other test vehicles. Maintaining a high level of safety requires a constant, high-bandwidth link from the base of operations to each vehicle, along with several layers of fail-safe mechanisms.

As a first step, Ford’s installed an overlapping antenna array to create reliable, line-of-sight wireless communications to cover the entire grounds. The main controllers at the base station constantly ping each vehicle with a watchdog signal, and if either the vehicle or the station lose contact, emergency kill switches immediately turn off the ignition and apply brakes. To avoid fleshy and furry hazards, each vehicle is equipped with MobilEye obstacle avoidance cameras that identify the unexpected and alert on-board controller to apply the brakes or take evasive maneuvers. The in-car computer also handles the rest of the driving, with the aid of high-resolution GPS that pinpoints a vehicle’s location within an inch, and constantly adjusts steering, throttle, and braking to match predetermined routes and speeds. A technician at the base watches video feeds and inbound telematics data for up to four cars and can remotely kill, start, and even steer each vehicle if the need arises (Ford uses a modified USB gaming steering wheel for driving– how cool!).

There are a few limitations – some artificial, some technical. Although the vehicles have the capability to travel any path or speed they’re programmed to, human drivers pilot each vehicle to designated and cordoned-off testing areas—humans and robotic drivers are kept completely separate just as a precaution.  Data transfer speeds represent another issue. Even though Ford installed a bespoke high-frequency radio network, there can be up to a half-second delay between the vehicle and the technician’s workstation. Half a second at eighty miles an hour is almost 60 feet of travel – not so good for safety – so the robots drive mostly under 50 mph to minimize the inherent problems of data latency.

As clever as this system is, Bledsoe doesn’t expect to ever completely replace human test drivers, nor are there any plans to reduce the workforce in Romeo. For now, the goal of the robotic testing is speed up the development process in general. As you can imagine, the test drivers are pretty happy to be rid of the most menial, and grueling driving tasks. So far the robots have been used on eight pre-production Ford models, the first of which is the upcoming Ford Transit you see in these photos, and there will be many, many more to come. Robots can deliver steering, throttle and braking inputs to exacting mathematical standards, but they can’t tell engineers how a car feels. Human drivers will always be used to fine tune new cars, and discover things that no robot could be programmed to do – they just won’t get beaten up from all those other tests.

Read more: Robots are test driving the new Ford Transit. Here’s a look at the future of new car development. – Popular Mechanics