In 2013, Ford revealed a robotic test driving technology designed to spare human drivers the ordeal of on- and off-road vehicle durability testing. This autonomous system wasn't intended for inclusion in production vehicles, but for closed proving grounds where manufacturers subject their vehicles to high stress to simulate years of tough use in the real world. Ford has partnered with Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) to continue development of the technology, which it is now licensing to other automakers.

During vehicle development and product testing, automotive manufacturers will test the durability of their vehicles on a variety of road conditions. These tests are designed to find weaknesses in the design of every element of the vehicle, from drivetrain to driver’s controls to passenger seating. Tests include repeated runs over bumpy, uneven surfaces for hours on end as well as continual curb bumps, bumper thumps, puddle fording, and more. These hours of repeated back-and-forth over a given test surface are tedious and jarring to human occupants.

Replacing the human element with a robotic system means fewer lost man hours to illness and fatigue as well as better, more cost-effective long-term vehicle testing. The tests, which can put 10 or more years of simulated real-world use on a vehicle in just a few months, are a critical part of the product development cycle and the continued improvements that car manufacturers make to their product lines.

Engineers and designers from Ford and ASI developed the software and components for the autonomous, robotic operation of test vehicles, which works by controlling the vehicle as a human would, with robotic manipulation of the steering, pedals, and gear levers. Software is used to give the robot pre-programmed tasks to perform, usually repeatedly, for a specific test series.

The system can be fitted to any vehicle without requiring refitting of existing vehicle components and humans in a control room are able to track the vehicle via cameras and GPS and can shut down the robot and vehicle at any time, should the need arise. Course corrections and other remote-controlled manipulation can also be carried out by engineers.

Ford and ASI say that the system wasn't ready for regular use by other original equipment manufacturers until this year because many components, as well as the installation and removal process, required fine-tuning and greater simplicity.

Ford is currently using the robotic driving system to test engineering prototypes of the 2017 F-Series Super Duty truck and ASI says that other automakers have already purchased the robotic system to evaluate the technology's potential use in vehicle durability tests. ASI is selling the systems under patent license from Ford for the testing of cars, trucks, buses and military vehicles.

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