The Blue Oval folks started advertising their trucks as “Built Ford Tough” in 1979. Since those glorious Twin-I-Beam days, the trucks have toughened up enough that the torture required to break them during durability testing is now so extreme and uncomfortable for the driver that the company dares not allow its employees to conduct this testing for an entire shift at its Michigan Proving Ground outside rural Romeo. More different drivers conducting such an uncomfortable test leads to poor repeatability which casts doubt on the end results.
The solution? Easy: Just let a robot do the driving. No kidneys to rattle, no sciatica to act up, just actuators, motors, and solenoids dutifully responding to the ones and zeros defining their path. And how hard could that be? We’re talking about driving on a limited number of fully controlled roads and paths -- child’s play compared with making Google’s car play nice in traffic, right?
Well, yes and no. True, the stakes facing Ford were lower without the unpredictable element of the public to consider, but if it were easy, Ford might not be the first company to deploy autonomously guided durability testing (Chrysler’s 1994 attempt at an automated durability road used vehicle guidance strips in the pavement). Cost was a major constraint -- especially since this project was conceived and brought to fruition beneath the corporate radar, with no big line-item engineering budget. The team is cagey on dollars-and-cents specifics, but Dave Payne, Ford’s Manager of Vehicle Development Operations says that the full setup, which can be moved from vehicle to vehicle, costs about $100,000. That’s remarkable, considering that just the laser array crowning a GooglePrius is said to cost about a quarter-million. Ford’s command center can control eight robo-testers.
The system was developed over a period of three years in conjunction with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions, Inc., which mostly specializes in automating agricultural and mining equipment. (While looking for a development partner, Ford discovered that ASI had robotized an Explorer to tow target trailers out for use as F-16 fighter target practice.) Indeed, most of the actuators and motors employed are ASI parts, but Ford did a lot of work upgrading the software and hardening the safety systems. After all, most ASI applications top out at single-digit speeds, and Ford needed to run at up to 80 mph.
An ASI controller and PC onboard each test vehicle executes the test program downloaded from the control center, taking input from myriad cameras, obstacle-detection, and other sensors including a GPS unit that gets corrected to +/- 1.0 inch, using differential GPS supplied by a beacon on the property. An extremely robust network of radio/WiFi communications links each vehicle with the command center. Onboard and off-board kill-switches are utilized if any sort of fault or drop in communications occurs. The vehicles can, in an extreme pinch, be operated manually from the control center, but this is only ever used to move a vehicle a short distance (e.g. to clear it out of the way when a fault has occurred). Another adaptation from the ASI applications is the ability to move the gear out of the way to allow human control, which is used to move the vehicles in between the test venues and the garage area. Hooking up the robotic controls takes about 30 minutes.
My test ride is in a 2014 Transit van getting prepared for urban assault duty on the “Curb your Enthusiasm” course, which simulates tromping up and down enough curbs to cross Manhattan half on the sidewalk. RoboTester looks nothing like R2D2, C3PO or Rosie the maid -- just a disjointed nest of remote cables operating the pedals and shifter, and a ring-gear-and-pinion spinning the wheel. It’s difficult to personify, but if I could, I’d accuse “him” of being mighty jerky on the controls. I can detect the feedback loop iterating the major turns, sawing the wheel back and forth a bit on corner entry and exit, and braking to a stop never fails to throw my head forward. But hey, smoothness never broke a suspension arm, and that’s kind of the point. After one pass pounding over all these curbs and potholes, I’m relieved not to be facing eight more hours of this.
The system is easily adaptable to cars, and could be useful for automating dangerously boring tasks like high-speed mileage accumulation, but the system really pays off in the extreme durability realm, where Ford has recorded glitch-free, repeatable shifts as long as 11.5 hours. This is why Payne reassures the rest of his test driving employees that their jobs are not threatened. He also plans to expand the program to other testing facilities around the world.