Bumpy ride for Ford's car-testing robots

Only robots can handle these roads
Only robots can handle these roads

Ford (F) employs a special team of drivers to put its trucks through rigorous durability testing. These drivers bounce vans over curbs thousands of times and drive big trucks through deep ditches and over rows of concrete obstacles.

They also happen to be robots.

This is all to test how much abuse the vehicles can take before things start breaking. But trucks are made of steel and rubber. Human beings, are not. Our bodies couldn't take this sort of abuse for long. The robots putting these trucks through their paces are made from steel rods and gears.

They can't see, they can't hear and they don't look human in the least. But, besides the fact that they lack easily damaged internal organs and spinal columns, robots have several other key advantages.

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They never get bored and don't mind driving over the same stretch of nasty pavement or convoluted concrete over and over again. Also, they drive these routes with a precision that would be impossible for a human driver getting banged around inside a truck cab. Each bump, each rut, each curb edge, is hit at precisely the same speed each time all day long and even all night.

The real brains behind all this are people sitting in office chairs, drinking coffee, and watching the action on computer screens in a control center in Ford's Romeo, Mich., Proving Grounds.

I rode in the passenger seat while a robot-driven van thumped up and down over curb after curb. It was uncomfortable and really, really irritating.

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Some tests, like Body Twist Road and The Twist Ditch are so brutal that human drivers aren't allowed to perform them at all. The human body just wouldn't be able to handle the strain.

Minivans fail IIHS crash test
Minivans fail IIHS crash test

But if you think the robots have taken over completely, they haven't. Human drivers are still used for most of the test driving at Ford. Robots can't tell you if the steering feels funny or if the ride quality's not nice. For now, robots are only used for trucks and only for this sort of brutal, dead boring durability testing.

Making your family car drive nicely still requires a human touch.

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