Developed by Ford engineers along with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc., the autonomous vehicles employ robotic technology to drive cars during accelerated high-impact on- and off-road durability tests.
In use now at Ford’s Michigan proving grounds, the robotically driven vehicles are able to tackle tests that are designed to compress 10 years of daily driving abuse into courses a couple of hundred metres long comprising surfaces of broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversized speed bumps.
While some durability tests are so physically taxing for human drivers that restrictions exist for exposure time, the autonomous test vehicles allow engineers to run an unlimited number of repeat tests until satisfied.
Ford vehicle development operations manager Dave Payne said robotic testing allowed the company to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping ‘real’ drivers comfortable.
“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,” Payne said.
The test vehicles are operated via a robotic control module installed in the test vehicle controlling steering, acceleration and braking with the module set to follow a pre-programmed course. The vehicle’s position is then tracked via cameras and GPS with engineers able to stop and correct a vehicle or restart a test at any time.
“The goal here was not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets,” said 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.”
The autonomous vehicle testing program has already been used for durability testing of Ford’s all-new Transit van, due to launch in the US in 2014.