MADISON, Wis. — Automotive companies are known as pioneers in robotic technologies. They've honed their robotic skills to improve their production lines.
Japan's Honda has gone even further by creating a cute, Asimo humanoid robot. But Asimo isn't a little helping hand on a manufacturing line. Its purpose is to appeal to the masses and show off the Japanese auto company's cool robotic expertise. (Asimo even has its own website.)
Now, robots are going to work as test drivers for auto companies.
Ford recently announced that its engineers have developed "the industry's first robotic test driving program." It is now in use at Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich., "in order to meet demands that Ford trucks undergo ever more strenuous Built Ford Tough testing with greater frequency," said the auto company.
Logically. There's no surprise at the idea of robotically driven vehicles for intense testing purposes. After all, who wants to sacrifice a human test driver's life and limb in the name of building a "tough" car?
Ford emphasized that its robotic program's goal is:
Not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets... [but] 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.
You'll find no test drivers inside Ford’s testing vehicles. Its robotic technology is at work, operating the auto company’s new accelerated, high-impact, on-road and off-road durability testing.
So, what are the moving parts here?
They include a robotic-control module, cameras, a GPS tracking mechanism, and on-board sensors.
The robotic control module installed in the test vehicle controls vehicle steering, acceleration, and braking. It is set to follow a preprogrammed course, and the vehicle's position is tracked via cameras in a central control room and a GPS unit accurate to plus/minus one inch, Ford explained.
If the vehicle strays from its programmed course, engineers can stop the vehicle, course-correct, and restart the test. Onboard sensors can command a full stop if a pedestrian or another vehicle strays into the path, according to Ford.
With robotically driven vehicles repeatedly performing tests on torturous surfaces, Ford claims that the tests "can compress 10 years of daily driving abuse into courses just a few hundred yards long, with surfaces that include broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits and oversized speed bumps."
In developing this program, Ford engineers collaborated with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI) to design the software and components that enable autonomous, robotic operation of the test vehicle.
ASI, an expert in unmanned ground vehicle systems and components, serves clients in military, agriculture, industrial/mining, and automotive.
The pilot program, according to Ford, has been used most recently for durability testing of Ford's all-new full-size Transit van, which launches in 2014.