Robot controllers, distracted drivers, and a papal blessing

Pope Francis blesses Harley-Davidson motorbikers on June 16, 2013.
Pope Francis blesses Harley-Davidson motorbikers on June 16, 2013. –PIZZOLIALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Being a test driver and helping develop new cars over manufacturers’ proving grounds always was one of those wish-I-had-it jobs.

But, like so many other professions, it now appears that the work is being outsourced, and there may be fewer jobs in the field down the road.

Ford announced last week that it is using robotic controllers for some test-driving assignments. The reason: High-impact durability test conditions are just too taxing for humans.

Some of the Ford testing scenarios are so demanding that human drivers are only allowed to drive them once per day. There’s no such limit on the mechanical operators.


At least from the outside, the robotic test-drivers seem to give new meaning to the “Built Ford Tough’’ slogan. They’re being used in a pilot program for durability tests at the company’s Michigan Proving Grounds. The first vehicle to be tested is the all-new, full-size Transit van, which will launch in 2014.

“Some of the tests we do on our commercial trucks are so strenuous that we limit the exposure time for human drivers,’’ says Dave Payne, vehicle development operations manager. “The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable.’’

It was a relief to learn that the robots haven’t replaced human drivers totally.

“The robotic testing allows us to accelerate durability testing while simultaneously increasing the productivity of our other programs by redeploying drivers to areas such as noise level and vehicle dynamics testing,’’ says Payne.

“The goal is to create a test-track solution that allows us to test vehicles at the extreme limits of their engineering,’’ says Payne. “It’s not to develop a truly autonomous vehicle that can drive itself on city streets.’’

However, it appears to be a step in that direction. The robotic technology includes a control module that controls steering, acceleration, and braking. The vehicles follow a pre-programmed course and they are tracked in a central control room with GPS systems accurate within an inch. Onboard sensors can execute a full stop if a pedestrian, animal, or other vehicle strays into its path.


It’s also impersonal. “I absolutely begged the engineers to name the robots, but no dice,’’ says Ford spokesman Ron Hall. “They threw around some names, but nothing seemed to stick.’’

Distracted Driving

With the ever-increasing attention given to in-car infotainment systems, Ford’s robots might be an improvement over ever-more-distracted human drivers.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety this month released research findings that show what common sense tells us: As mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows. In addition, the study shows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road ahead less often and miss visual cues.

With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA CEO Robert L. Darbelnet calls this “a looming public safety crisis. It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common misperception that hands-free means risk-free.’’

The cognitive distraction research was done at the University of Utah where Dr. David Strayer and his team used cameras, an EEG-configured skull cap, and a driver detection-response device to record drivers’ reaction times.

Drivers were asked to respond to a variety of visual cues while engaging in common tasks such as listening to an audio book, talking on the phone, and listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

On the “Distraction Scale,’’ listening to the radio was a 1, or minimal risk. Talking on a cell phone, either handheld or hands-free, rated a 2 or moderate risk. Listening and responding to voice-activated email increased mental activity and distraction levels to a 3 rating, meaning extensive risk.


As a result, AAA is urging the industry to explore limiting voice-activation to core driving-related tasks such as adjusting climate control, cruise control, and windshield wipers.

It also wants consideration given to disabling voice-to-text technologies such as using social media or interacting with text and email when the vehicle is in motion.

“These increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction,’’ says Darbelnet.


Harley-Davidson promised participants once-in-a-lifetime experiences during the company’s 110th anniversary, a year-long series of events spanning 11 countries and six continents that ends in Milwaukee the last week of August. Last Sunday’s Papal blessing in Vatican City, during which Pope Francis blessed thousands of H-D riders and their passengers, certainly qualifies …. Today is British Car Day at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. This always is one of the highlights of the museum’s Lawn Season and dedicated show-goers and display-car owners know to get there early. Next Sunday (June 30) is Miata Day. Not that anyone asked, but an early Miata is a great entrée into the Collector Car hobby …. The 37th annual Chevy Classic International runs this Wednesday through Sunday at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Nashua, N.H. Check out for details, but one of the highlights will be a cruise to Kimball Farms (great ice cream) in Westford on Saturday afternoon

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