Videos: Autonomous Ford Transit Van Undergoes Durability Testing
The automated Google Prius fleet and other self-driving cars have been getting a ton of ink lately, but while that technology is more than 10 years away from fully enabling your eyes-free, hands-on-Words With Friends commute, Ford quietly rolled out the world’s first self-guided Autonomous Durability Testing robot in October of last year. It was set up in a Ford Super Duty truck, and assigned the task of carrying out the company’s most extreme truck durability testing. The course is so tortuous that Ford doesn’t allow its employees to conduct these tests for an entire shift. Assigning different drivers to such an uncomfortable test leads to poor repeatability that casts doubt on the end results.
Letting a robot do the driving solves the problem—no kidneys to rattle, no nagging sciatica, just actuators, motors, and solenoids cooperating to follow an assigned path. And while programming a remotely monitored truck to follow a closed private course is far easier than making a car play nice in traffic all by itself, there were plenty of other challenges. Cost was a big one—especially since this project was executed beneath the corporate radar, with no big line-item engineering budget. The team is guarding its dollars-and-cents specifics, but Dave Payne, Ford’s manager of vehicle development operations says that the full setup, which can transferable from vehicle to vehicle, costs about $100,000—way less than the gear on a Google Prius.
The system was developed with Utah-based Autonomous Solutions, Inc., over three years. ASI specializes in automating agricultural and mining equipment, and most of the actuators and motors employed are ASI parts, but Ford upgraded the software and hardened the safety systems as required to increase the speed from harvester combine speeds to 80 mph.
An ASI controller and PC onboard each vehicle executes the test program as downloaded from the control center, taking input from cameras and other sensors including a GPS unit that’s corrected to +/- 1.0 inch, using differential GPS from a nearby beacon. A robust network of radio/WiFi communications links the test vehicles with the command center. Kill-switches are utilized in the event of a fault or a drop in communications. The vehicles can be operated from the control center manually, but this is only used to move a vehicle a short distance out of the way if a fault occurs. Ford adapted the ASI gear to be easily removed for human control, which is how the vehicles are moved between test venues or to and from the garage area. Reattaching the robotic controls takes some 30 minutes.
My shotgun ride is in a 2014 Transit van covered the “Curb your Enthusiasm” course, a simulation of tromping over dozens of curb islands. My Robo chauffeur doesn’t look at all like C3PO, R2D2 or Rosie the maid—it’s just a bunch of remote cables pushing the pedals and shifter, and a ring-and-pinion twirling the steering wheel. This automaton is pretty jerky on the controls. Watching the wheel, I can sense the feedback software iterating the major turns, sawing at the wheel in turns to maintain the perfect course, then braking to an abrupt stop. Of course, smoothness doesn’t break suspension arms, which is the point. My single pass over the curbs and potholes leaves me ready to hop out, glad I’m not facing eight hours of this.
The system easily fits in cars, and could help automate dangerously boring tasks like high-speed mileage accumulation, but the big benefit is in extreme durability testing, where Ford is recording repeatable work shifts as long as 11.5 hours. Payne reassures his test driving employees that these eight robots don’t threaten their jobs. (Indeed the UAW local in Michigan heartily approves of relieving its members of this hazardous duty.) We can also expect to see this program rolled out at other Ford testing facilities around the world.
Official Ford video:
Auto News, Ford, Future/Spied, Minivan/Van, Technology
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