By Aaron Bragman
I have seen the future, and if you are a test driver or aspire to be one, your participation is likely not required. Ford Motor Co. invited a handful of journalists to its Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich., to get a peek at a new durability testing procedure that could very well be the wave of the future — one that eliminates drivers from many of the vehicles being tested, turning control over to an autonomous system.
Developed in conjunction with Utah-based Autonomous Systems Inc., maker of unmanned vehicle systems, Ford's Automated Vehicle Durability Test System replaces test drivers with a combination of systems that allow the vehicle to be remotely piloted by computer. A GPS receiver on the roof of the car gets signals from satellites and ground-based repeaters allow the computer to know where the vehicle is on the track within 1 inch accuracy. A ring gear controls the steering wheel while linear accelerators handle the pedals; all the systems can be removed in 30 minutes to allow for normal driving by a human. Combined with a super-accurate map of the proving grounds' test tracks, the system allows a test vehicle to pilot itself over a repeating test loop. All of it is monitored from a staffed control room. An operator sits in front of a bank of video monitors and can control between four and eight vehicles at a time. Onboard sensors will bring the vehicle to a stop if they detect an obstacle or pedestrian in its way, or the remote operator can halt everything with a kill switch in the control room.
The benefits of using such a system are obvious: highly accurate repeatability in durability testing, faster development times and lower costs from all of the above. Right now Ford is using the system to test the new 2015 Ford Transit van that will arrive in the U.S. next year, but says it has already put eight vehicles through the system, including the next Super Duty pickup. The system has been in development for nearly three years, with a skunk works of eight engineers taking on additional duties to get it up and running.
Ford is using the system for tests that are either too punishing for humans to do or too monotonous. Ford demonstrated what it euphemistically called the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" test, which involved a Transit driving at about 25 mph back and forth over a long, straight concrete path that had low curbs placed at regular intervals, followed by two circular loops that saw the van get two wheels up onto a curb. The test is meant to help simulate 10 years of wear and tear, shortened into a period of just months — but a human driver would find an eight-hour shift driving the truck over the durability test track to be physically punishing. Instead of swapping new drivers out every couple of hours, Ford has automated the test — and can now run it continuously, 24 hours a day, without stopping for driver changes or lunch breaks.
Not only can Ford run the most difficult tests faster and longer, but it can do them with a repeatability that human test drivers can't match. With a computer controlling the van, it is possible to get nearly the exact same steering and pedal inputs every time on the test loop — there is no driver error or variation, as there is no driver. This allows Ford to make the tests even more concentrated and compact, saving even more time and money. Dave Payne, Ford's manager of vehicle development operations (the guy responsible for how Ford tests vehicles worldwide), now estimates that the company can do a full 10-year durability test in just three months, and that the investment in the system has already paid for itself in less than a year thanks to efficiency cost savings.
Next up, Ford intends to expand the system to more parts of its proving grounds, as well as to test tracks around the world. The system is currently rated at speeds up to 80 mph, and Ford would like to boost that top speed rating to 120-150 mph in order to use it for the maximum velocity durability testing on its high-speed ovals. You may think it sounds exciting to go 150 mph for hours at a time on a high-speed oval, but it gets monotonous Payne says, and that can get dangerous. Ford would also like to mix its autonomous testing vehicles and piloted vehicles on the same track; right now Ford isolates the autonomous vehicles for safety purposes. The company says that it has no intention of completely replacing all test drivers with robots, but for tests like these, autonomous systems just make more sense.
To read the full Ford press release, click here.