Robots Take the Wheel in Ford Test-Drive Program


  • Robotic Test Drives Picture

    Robotic Test Drives Picture

    Robots are now testing cars at a Ford track in Michigan. | June 18, 2013

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Just the Facts:
  • Robots are now serving as test drivers at a Ford track in Michigan, as the automaker makes autonomous cars and trucks a part of its durability testing.
  • Robots have been used to test the full-size 2014 Ford Transit van.
  • Ford said the robots can withstand the "intense testing" that is impractical for human drivers.

DEARBORN, Michigan — Robots are now serving as test drivers at a Ford track in Michigan, as the automaker makes autonomous cars and trucks a part of its durability testing.

Robots have been used to test the full-size 2014 Ford Transit van.

Ford said the robots can withstand the "intense testing" that is impractical for human drivers. Another plus is that robots don't require bathroom breaks, meals and eight-hour shifts.

"The goal here was not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets," said Dave Payne, Ford manager of vehicle development operations, in a statement. "Our objective was 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."

Ford said it is the first automaker to launch a robotic test-driving program.

The robots perform high-impact on-road and off-road durability testing. They follow a preprogrammed course and the vehicle's position is tracked via cameras in a central control room. The robotic program is now in use at Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo.

"Should the vehicle stray from its programmed course, engineers have the ability to stop the vehicle, course correct as necessary and restart the test," said Ford.

Autonomous vehicles, including a self-driving Toyota Prius undergoing testing by Google, have been commanding headlines lately.

Self-driving cars are not ready for use by the general public, according to new federal guidelines published in late May by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA says it does not recommend that states authorize the operation of self-driving vehicles "for purposes other than testing at this time." In fact, it is discouraging states from even setting up rules governing self-driving cars.

Edmunds says: Probably the most practical use for self-driving cars and trucks at this point. Undoubtedly, other automakers will follow Ford with robotic test drivers, if they haven't already.

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