Self-driving cars seem like they’ll be on our roads any day now, but what about self-testing cars that can drive themselves around insanely destructive tracks? Engineers at Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Michigan, say that they've come up with the industry’s first robotic test system designed to drive trucks and vans over roads that are intended to put a decade of wear on a van in around three months.
We’re used to seeing videos of crash tests where vehicles are demolished and dummies are thrown about, and researchers have spent decades figuring out ways to carry out safety testing in such a way that all the variables are controlled without the vehicle being utterly destroyed. But road testing for day to day driving has become just as intense, with cars and other vehicles being put through torture tests designed to condense ten years of abuse into a short period. They clomp over cement blocks, climb impossible grades and run over massive cobbles, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversized speed bumps that can literally shake a van to pieces.
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According to Ford, all of its trucks must pass this battery of durability tests before declared fit for sale. The trouble is that test drivers can be only exposed to such forces for a limited period of time as this workout can shake them to pieces. Some testing scenarios involve conditions so arduous that drivers are limited to only one run a day.
Ford’s answer is a new way of testing trucks and vans that replaces the driver with a robot. A pilot program is underway at the Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo to test the company’s new 2014 Transit van on torturous surfaces with names like Silver Creek, Power Hop Hill and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable. Robotic testing allows us to do both,” says Dave Payne, manager, vehicle development operations. “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.”
Ford engineers worked in collaboration with the Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. to come up with the software and components for robotic systems to operate the test vehicle. The technology consists of a robotic control module that handles vehicle steering, acceleration and braking. It runs autonomously according to a pre-programmed course while tracked by GPS and cameras. An operator at central control handles up to eight vehicles simultaneously. If one goes off course, the operator can correct it or stop it and restart the test. The system also has the ability to sense pedestrians and other vehicles and stop automatically if necessary.
“The goal here was not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets,” says 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.”
Ford says that the new system not only allows them to use the drivers’ time more efficiently while sparing them a rattling, but that it has other advantages, such as the ability to stage an unlimited number of repeat tests, and the development of tougher tests and vehicles. It also allows accelerated testing by allowing the vehicles to run almost 24/7, stopping only for fuel and scheduled inspections
The video below shows the robotic testing system in action.