Ford’s robot drivers tackle ‘challenging endurance tests’ in place of humans

12 Aug 2021

The robot driver in the seat of a vehicle. Image: Ford

Human drivers no longer need to expose themselves to brutal conditions in testing extreme environments, as Ford’s robots are taking the wheel.

Vehicles have to cope with all manner of terrain and environments. Making sure they are ready for the road can be a long but necessary process. Whether they’re being driven over high-terrain mountains or through blistering desert heat, it is crucial to make sure there are no mechanical failures in these conditions.

This introduces a problem for the companies testing the vehicles – how can you safely subject a test driver to repeated exposure of extreme environments? Companies need to know that the vehicles can cope with brutal conditions over long periods of time, but that means subjecting a driver to these same conditions.

Ford’s solution was to bring in little yellow robot drivers nicknamed Shelby and Miles. These robot drivers won’t become tired or unwell in simulations of high-altitude environments. They don’t need oxygen bottles, medical equipment or a paramedic on-site to monitor their health.

All these robots need is to be set up in the vehicle where their leg can extend to the accelerator, brake and clutch. One arm is set to change gears while the other can start the engine. Then, they’re good to go.

Ford said the robots are named after two major players in the history of the company’s endurance vehicles. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles were involved in the development of the Ford GT40, which won the endurance racing event the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in the 1960s. Shelby was also involved with the Ford Mustang and the modified vehicles that carry his name today.

“These two new drivers are fantastic additions to the team, as they can take on the challenging endurance tests at high altitudes and in hot temperatures,” said Frank Seelig, a supervisor at the Ford Europe wind tunnel testing facility.

“Once the robot is in the driver’s seat, we can run tests through the night without ever having to worry that the driver will need a sandwich or a bathroom break.”

Each robot driver is capable of withstanding temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius or as high as a scorching 80 degrees Celsius. Extreme altitudes pose no risk and the robots can even be set to different driving styles.

Ford hasn’t previously shied away from seeing what robots can offer the driving industry, as the company has shown considerable interest in autonomous driving. While Shelby and Miles are unlikely to take the wheel outside of the company’s testing facility in Cologne, Germany, their ability to take the heat (and altitude) promises to reduce the burden on human testers.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news