Ford Autonomous Durability Testing demonstration in a Ford Transit. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Mark Stevenson
Google and other automakers may be getting all the headlines for self-driving cars, but Ford is already putting robots to work at their proving grounds in Michigan.
During a vehicle’s development, durability testing is part of the regimen, so the car you drive off the lot is as steadfast and reliable as possible. However, a lot of that testing is monotonous, and can even cause injuries.
Much like crash testing in the 1950s and 1960s, durability testing can take its toll on the human body. Rapid changes of direction can cause undue stresses on the neck and other body parts. Also, repetitive movements can create other issues, much like carpal tunnel syndrome.
“Our durability routes are really extreme and punishing to the drivers,” explained Dave Payne, track manager of Ford durability testing.
“We had to limit [tester’s] hours to two hours a day at the most.”
Unfortunately, with only two hours a day, you can’t effectively test a vehicle in today’s automotive climate. Timeframes are tight and testing must be done very quickly in order to bring new products to market.
The solution? Automate the testing process as much as possible.
During Ford’s annual model year preview in Dearborn, Michigan, engineers trotted out their latest in testing technology.
Hooked up to a new Ford Transit, a collection of hardware mounted inside the cab was able to take the van around a loop of one of Ford’s testing tracks with journalists sitting in the back.
A third-party supplier, Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI), provides most of the hardware and brains behind the system. ASI specializes not only in autonomous vehicle testing, but also in the mining and farming industries to drive worksite safety and efficiency. Ford engineers then develop shifting arms and bracket mounts for each vehicle while also programming the hardware to drive specified paths guided by GPS.
Using a combination of electric motors and hydraulic rams, the robot is able to navigate the track precisely every time in a very repeatable manner.
By automating the process, engineers can then focus on testing procedures and analyzing the results of those tests instead of managing the limits of human frailty so occupants of test vehicles don’t get hurt.
Without occupants, engineers are now able to push these vehicles to their extreme limits.
Ford Autonomous Durability Testing. Click image to enlarge
“We can go faster, get the test done faster, or – as we are going faster over some bumps – we are putting more loads in and making the vehicles tougher,” Payne elaborated.
With all this automation, you can lose the human element. While tracking down something as simple as feedback in a pedal or pinpointing a rattle in the cabin would be easy for a trained engineer, an autonomous testing system doesn’t have the ability to “think” about what the test vehicle is experiencing.
It’s for this reason that Payne and his team don’t trust everything to the robot.
“We use microphones and other things to get some of that human feedback. But, our brains are amazing computers, so there’s a person in the vehicle every once in a while because we can sense more things than a computer can sense.”
Another limitation exists in the form of manual transmissions; cars equipped with manual transmissions cannot be tested in this manner… at least not yet.
Jeff Bledsoe of Ford explained, “ASI has not invented a solution to do manual transmissions. It’s a little tricky because you need to teach the robot how to move the gearshift,” versus the linear motion of an automatic shift lever, “and coordinate the clutch.”
Even with these limitations, Payne foresees robot-driven automated testing becoming more prevalent at proving grounds of Ford and others. Ford is the first in the industry to go ahead with this type of testing but he says other companies are following suit.
Ford only uses this particular robot testing at their Romeo, Michigan facility, but as the system becomes more sophisticated and can handle manual transmissions, engineers will be taking the technology to Europe and other facilities around the world.
And while the robots are surely dependable, Bledsoe exclaimed, “the vehicles are more reliable!”
“It’s safer, faster, and tougher, allowing us to get ‘Ford Tough’ into every vehicle,” reiterated Payne.