Ford is using models driven by robots for durability testing

Article by Anita Panait, on June 17, 2013

To ensure that its vehicles are really “built Ford tough,” the carmaker has been employing test drivers who try to find the durability limits of new models, up until now. Ford has disclosed that it is the first carmaker to employ autonomous vehicles as a major part of its durability testing. According to Dave Payne, Ford’s manager of vehicle development operations, disclosed that around three-fourths of its durability testing can now be accomplished without human drivers -- using either robots or dynamometers. 

The carmaker has barred human test drivers from three routes at its Michigan Proving Ground north of Detroit and is planning to use the technology more significantly in there and other test tracks.

Payne remarked that while he does not know whether human drivers will completely be eliminated, they could get them out of “tough, monotonous routes.” Ford has not reduced its driving staff -- 30 full-time and 30 part-time drivers -- at the Michigan Proving Ground in favor of robots and has no plans to do so.

The carmaker, however, has changed the way some workers are used. According to Payne, Ford can get about 11.5 hours of testing in a 12-hour period using robots. On the other hand, Ford only gets around five hours from human drivers, who work on eight-hour shifts, and has to take meals and other downtime tasks.

Payne noted that through autonomous vehicles has allowed Ford to cut ten years' worth of vehicle use and abuse to just around three months.  Equipment for each vehicle -- including actuators that push the pedals and an attachment that turns the steering wheel -- costs Ford less than $100,000, Payne disclosed.

“Some of the tests we do on our commercial trucks for North America are so strenuous that we limit the exposure time for human drivers,” says Dave Payne, manager, vehicle development operations. “The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable".“Robotic testing allows us to do both,” he says. “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.”

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