ROMEO, MICH. -- A Ford Transit van slams its way over concrete obstacles in a test of durability here at the automaker's proving grounds some 40 miles north of Detroit. The continuous on-road torture is punishing and could wreak havoc on both chassis-components and a driver's spine, but this test driver doesn't mind.
That's because the driver is a robot -- a robotic autonomous device -- and it has not been programmed to complain.
Robots have helped assemble cars since 1961, when, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a Unimate robot on a General Motors assembly line began installing door handles. Robots have since taken over many tedious and hazardous tasks, but it's only in recent years that they have been assigned to test-track duty.
Other automakers use robotic drivers to test vehicles in limited ways, but Ford is the only company using them in place of human test drivers for this level of durability testing, said Dave Payne, Ford's manager of vehicle development operations, in an interview. The automaker began running robotically controlled vehicles on its test track in October 2012, following a development program of nearly two years.
The sight of a large van with no one at the wheel -- I had never seen a driverless vehicle navigate roads before -- bearing down on my position was a bit tense at first, but the machine's accurate course proved reassuring.
The robotic system guiding the van, developed by Ford in partnership with Autonomous Solutions of Petersboro, Utah, depends on global positioning sensors. The GPS ability relies on the same satellites that help a smartphone find a restaurant, but it is far more precise. Accurate to one inch, it uses correction technology similar to that employed by systems that land airplanes.
When the plan for autonomous durability testing was approved, the proving grounds team began creating precise maps of the test-track roads. Then inch-by-inch, turn-by-turn paths for the tests, defined by lines and arcs that correspond to points on the road, were developed.
These were used to create instruction sets with steering, throttle and braking commands that would keep each test vehicle on a course varying by less than an inch at any point, Mr. Payne said. Rather than one set for an entire test, the driving instructions are divided into segments, each covering a portion of the track.
A radio system using multiple antennas uploads segment instructions to an onboard controller in each test vehicle. The instructions are queued and become active as required by vehicle position. The controller generates signals that operate steering, brake, throttle and gearshift as required.
Steering is done by a motor that turns a ring gear attached to the wheel; linear actuators operate the throttle, brakes and gearshift selector.
The operation of test-fleet vehicles is overseen from a command center, where a flesh-and-blood supervisor watches multiple monitors displaying maps that trace the path of each vehicle, live test-track video, readouts of vehicle system vitals and more. Looking over his shoulder, I watched as GPS software traced the path of a vehicle on one monitor, while the next monitor displayed a corresponding video.
Should a car or truck deviate from its path, the supervisor can shut it down with a push of a big red button. A second button can shut down all robotic vehicles on the proving grounds.
Jeff Bledsoe, Ford's durability technical specialist, said the project team sampled products from several suppliers before they found a communication system that delivered the performance necessary to relay information to test vehicles rapidly.
The system can deliver a signal in 20 to 50 milliseconds, so a vehicle going 30 m.p.h. will travel only about a foot in the time it takes for a message to arrive. Because the command center is sending only segment instructions and not direct guidance, that's more than adequate.
I rode along as a robotic test driver negotiated a punishing course in a Transit van. The digitized operator wheezed and clanked as it executed turns and guided the vehicle over substantial bumps, but it kept us on course with reassuring accuracy.
It wasn't big on conversation but had apparently turned the radio on before I climbed in, perhaps thinking I required entertainment. The robot's steering control was good, but its brake and throttle application were herky-jerky -- I wouldn't want to commute with it every day -- but it delivered me safely back to the starting point.
Ford's automated durability testing project not only replaces human drivers in unhealthy and tedious assignments, but it also can produce more reliable and consistent test results.
To evaluate the system, Ford engineers mapped loads applied to chassis parts on a specific course with human and robotic vehicle operators. Two robots achieved results that were nearly identical, while the load graphs from a pair of human drivers were widely divergent.
Good repeatability of test-drive routes and speeds helps ensure that the test results are comparable. And because robotic test drivers don't take lunch, the number of bumps required to stress a part to failure can be packed into far fewer hours than would otherwise be required.
Ford technicians have run as many as four robotic test vehicles simultaneously, and they have the capability to run eight, crossing paths and interacting on the test track. But they have not yet mixed robot-driven vehicles with cars and trucks driven by human drivers.
That, however, is coming.
Mr. Bledsoe said the vehicle controllers would soon be equipped to recognize other vehicles and pedestrians.
"Autonomous Solutions has developed software that makes this possible," he said. "We've experimented with it, but have more prove-out to do."
The software employs some of the same sensors and cameras used for smart cruise control systems.
Asked how the test-track robotics project might relate to fully autonomous vehicle development, Mr. Payne said that while the test-track system had some things in common with autonomous technology, true driverless operation on a public road was "a whole different animal" in that the vehicle had to make decisions based on the environment.
That raises the question of whether Ford is working on a fully autonomous vehicle. A Ford spokesman, Said Deep, provided a company statement that said, in part, "We believe that automation will act as an assistance feature supporting the creation of better drivers, providing increasingly more capable cars that make driving safer -- always keeping the drivers in control."
In other words, Ford says it believes you're not going to want a robot at the wheel any time soon.
Mel Torrie, chief executive of Autonomous Systems, shows considerably more enthusiasm for autonomous passenger cars. "We are doing technology that would be applicable," he said. "We would love to work with Ford on that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.