In one of the more practical applications to date of autonomous in-vehicle technology, Ford has introduced what it says is the industry's first robotic test driving program at its Michigan Proving Ground in Romeo. This human-hands-free discipline, currently in its pilot stage, was used to help develop the automaker's new Transit Van which goes on sale here next year.

According to Dave Payne, manager of vehicle development operations, the move to put robots rather than people behind the wheel came about because the testing required for commercial trucks for the North American market is so severe that it was forcing the company to limit the exposure time for human evaluators. "The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable, noted Payne. "Robotic testing allows us to do both. 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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In some of the most severe testing regimens, a driver was only allowed to drive the specified test course once per day. With the new robotic package, not only do those cycle limits disappear, but the tests themselves can be made even more challenging in addition to being run on a 24/7 basis. Ford says that at their most intense levels, some of its current battery of evaluations can inflict as much as 10 years worth of real-world punishment in the space of just a few hundred yards.

Co-developed with a well-known leader in the vehicle robotics arena, Autonomous Solutions Inc, Ford's durability technology package is based around a robotic control module that commands vehicle steering, acceleration and braking. It can be programmed to follow any desired course and tracks the vehicle's exact position at any moment to a tolerance of 1-inch using cameras in a central remote control room. In addition to human monitors that can either stop the vehicle or perform in-course corrections as needed on up to eight different test subjects, each one also is fitted with additional fail-safe sensors that can bring it to a full and immediate stop should a pedestrian or another vehicle accidently stray into its path.

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"The goal here was not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets," said Payne. "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."

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