The goal of building the autonomous car is a noble one. Companies like Google, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Tesla Motors are working hard to make practical advances like reducing accidents and increasing fuel economy. But noble doesn’t necessarily mean exciting. Ford, on the other hand, has been using a robotic piloting system for something far more fun: Beating the snot out of each new model.
To guarantee every new car can live up to its price tag and warranty, Ford, like everyone else, sends every model to its proving grounds. These hellish arenas can simulate 10 years’ worth of daily abuse in football field-sized courses littered with broken concrete, cobblestones, metal grates, rough gravel, mud pits, and oversized speed bumps. Everything from the wee Fiesta all the way up to the mighty F-750 is sent out for durability trials, which, until three years ago, tested the durability of the carbon-based lifeforms behind the wheel.
“It’s a very grueling test for our drivers,” says David Payne, Ford’s manager of vehicle development operations. People, who are not made of metal and plastic, can get worn down and beat up, and they aren’t able to relentlessly drive at speed over severe obstacles day after day after day. Robots, of course, face no such constraints.
“You have potholes and bumps and even jumps and it really jostles them around. You have to limit the number of hours they can be in the vehicle, and so the concept was ‘Wow, what if we put robots in that could go 24/7 and drive the vehicles really hard and save the drivers for other tasks that aren’t so physically grueling, like agility testing?’”
Ford grew interested in making the switch to robo-drivers in 2012 and selected Autonomous Solutions Inc. from among six candidates. The Utah firm creates automated driving solutions for companies like Boeing, Goodyear, and Lockheed Martin. Payne says ASI had the best head start on the tech Ford wanted to incorporate, with systems already driving enormous mining trucks and agricultural equipment. Ford only needed to help tweak the system to suit more, say, dynamic conditions. “Farm tractors only need to go five miles an hour, where we need to go 80 miles an hour,” says Payne.
Inside each robo-car is a series of Ford-designed bell crank actuators that operate the brakes, accelerator, and gearshift. A rotary motor-powered gear does the steering, and everything is controlled by an onboard computer receiving packets of information from a base station in the communications room. That’s where the humans are, ensuring each test car goes the right speed in the right direction, and stays on a path mapped ahead of time by a human-driven car.
The home base computer manages up to 10 vehicles at a time, and is responsible for making sure nothing devolves into a demolition derby. “It can choreograph the dance with the various vehicles so they don’t collide with each other,” says Payne. Think of it like air traffic control, but in the mud.
While some of Ford’s engineers were skeptical that the robot-controlled cars could rise to the proper standard of durability testing, they’ve been convinced by the ability to run tests more efficiently and push the cars to even harsher extremes, Payne says. Without the pesky constraints of driver safety, durability testing time has dropped by 30 percent per vehicle, and cars can maintain optimal (read: abusive) speeds throughout the course. Where a human driver might be off the prescribed speed by 5 mph, the drone testers only slip by a 0.1 or 0.2 mph. Without a fear response, any car can charge over exaggerated speed bumps at 70 mph.
Ford’s exclusive deal with ASI has since lapsed, and the automated driving firm can license the consumer auto tech far and wide. So if you spot a boring, driverless Google car on the highway in the near future, give a passing thought to the hard working Ford C-Max that’s autonomously screaming through shallow moats at high speeds to ensure your safety. Its life may be shorter, but it’s having a lot more fun.