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Robots do the driving on Ford's toughest test terrain

7:49 AM, Jun 17, 2013   |    comments
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When the going gets tough, get a robot.

That was Ford's thinking years ago when development of ever-tougher trucks demanded testing the prototypes on ever-tougher test tracks.

More rigorous durability testing is good for eventual buyers but a bone-rattling assignment for test drivers who must put in the equivalent of thousands of miles over curbs, potholes and other hellish terrain.

When the idea of using robotics was first raised, it was denounced by drivers at Ford's proving grounds.

The testing surfaces grew more gruesome with engineers wanting their new trucks to be able to handle more and more.

"Some routes always had a limited amount of time drivers could spend on them," said Dave Payne, manager of vehicle development operations. "There are three routes we don't let drivers go on at all anymore. It was too hard on them."

The robot idea resurfaced three years ago as a way to keep testing on the meanest routes, and it was embraced.

"This is the world's first auto application of automated driving for durability," said Payne, noting it is separate from work under way for driverless cars.

When it comes to durability testing as part of the development process, "no one else is using GPS like this," said Mike Stoeckle, manager of the Michigan Proving Grounds.

The execution may be new but the idea is not.

Chrysler launched a $9-million Automated Durability Road in 1995, a three-lane, 1.3-mile oval track designed to accommodate 20 vehicles at a time that received instructions and sent signals from a guide wire planted in concrete in the center of each lane. There were radio receivers around the track. But Chrysler abandoned the project in 2000.

"We realized greater efficiencies with professional drivers," said Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne.

Meanwhile, three years ago, Ford approached Autonomous Solutions (ASI) of Logan, Utah, which produces automated vehicles for mining, agriculture and the military.

"We take the human out of tough, boring jobs," said ASI CEO Mel Torrie.

But this project was different, Torrie said, because Ford wanted a portable system that could be moved from vehicle to vehicle and the equipment takes more of a beating.

Ford became the first automaker to use ASI technology for durability testing.

Torrie said he is in negotiations with other interested carmakers. And some automakers use the technology for safety testing in which a vehicle is destroyed, such as a rollover crash.

Ford's robotic vehicles are radio controlled with GPS antenna, transmitters and receivers - a WiFi system on steroids - as well as cameras, control units and a motor attached to the steering wheel, said Jeff Bledsoe, durability technical specialist. The cars also have driver-assist technologies that can control speed and braking.

A computer in the vehicle executes the travel plan. Everything is monitored from a base station that knows exactly where each automated car is within one inch and that also captures all the data.

The cars can be driven back remotely from the control tower, and the command center has red kill buttons to remotely stop an individual car or cut power to them all simultaneously. The vehicles shut down automatically if they lose communication with the base station.

A next-generation system is in the works that will be even more robust, and Payne plans to buy four more in the next year.

It costs less than $100,000 to set up a vehicle, Payne said. The engineering costs are absorbed by the existing staff. The project has neither cost, nor added, jobs.

The first production vehicle tested was a prototype for the 2015 SuperDuty pickup. The equipment is also testing the new Transit full-size commercial van, Expedition, Explorer, F-150, Fusion and Fiesta.

Payne said it speeds up development time. A typical driver can get in five hours of intensive testing in an eight-hour shift. A robot can run for 11.5 hours straight, allowing Ford to put on 150,000 miles and simulate 10 years of ownership in three months.

And there is less variability in the data, said Bledsoe, because the robots never vary their speed and are not subject to fatigue.

Payne envisions the day when 75% of vehicle testing is done without a driver, whether through automation or equipment such as dynamometers.

But Ford will never stop using human drivers.

"Our brains are wonderful computers so we like to have a driver in there once in a while," Payne said.

Alisa Priddle, Detroit Free Press

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