Ford puts robots in the drivers' seat for environmental tests
Ford Europe has taken automation a step further by introducing robot test drivers. No, this isn't an attempt to save a pay packet, but as a way of testing cars under extreme environmental conditions without risking the health of a human driver.
Ever since the days when motor cars became practical machines rather than toys for hobbyists and the wealthy, testing them has evolved from starting the engine and hoping that it doesn't catch fire to a precise science complete with onboard diagnostic systems and computers.
However, car testing is more than making sure that the mechanics are up to spec. It also involves making sure that the vehicle can operate under extremes of heat, cold, wind, and altitude. This ensures that a well-built car can operate in the tropics, the deserts, the arctic, and over mountain passes with little chance of failing if properly maintained and used.
The problem is that such tests are as much a test of humans as machines. When a car is placed inside an environmental wind tunnel and subjected to baking heat, freezing cold, and high altitude pressures, so is the driver.
This can be a serious affair because drivers can become fatigued or even ill after a while. This means that testing can occur only during those times when a driver is fit and rested. Even then, the person has to be rigged with biosensors, oxygen bottles and medical equipment, and paramedics have to be standing by in case of a mishap.
All that means time and expense, so Ford has brought two robots into its Weather Factory test facility in Cologne, Germany. Called Shelby and Miles, they don't look much like human drivers, but they are able to operate controls and replicate what they do many times. They can operate in temperatures from -40 °C to 80 °C (-40 °F to 176 °F), at alpine altitudes, and can be programmed to carry out different driving styles.
In a static test stand, the robot's leg can reach the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals, while one arm can shift the gear lever and the other can start and stop the engine.
“These two new drivers are fantastic additions to the team, as they can take on the challenging endurance tests at high altitudes and in hot temperatures,” says Frank Seelig, Supervisor, Wind Tunnel Testing, Ford of Europe. “Once the robot is in the driver’s seat, we can run tests through the night without ever having to worry that the driver will need a sandwich or a bathroom break.”
The new robot test drivers are discussed in the video below.