The job title “test driver” sounds exciting and elicits images of high speed runs in supercars. The truth is a little more mundane and Toyota has figured out a way to spare its employees the drudgery.
The worst test driving job in America may well be the person who has to drive a development vehicle over a pothole and frost heave covered track endlessly. This is a real task performed by real people.
Like all automakers, Toyota subjects its development cars to all of the jarring hits a typical car would endure all at once to see how they hold up, what needs reinforcing, and what needs to be better nailed down. A special course with all the big impacts is all these cars, and the cars’ test drivers, see.
At Toyota, the employees who were doing the driving weren’t part of the evaluation team. They were not required to listen for rattles and report their findings. Sensors and gizmos recorded all the information the engineers needed. The drivers were just in the car to steer it and apply throttle. Over and over again. Until they couldn’t take it anymore and then stumbled out like the goalie from Slapshot.
Times are changing, and with vehicle automation almost perfect, Toyota certainly has the technical know-how to make an Avalon circle the same track on its own, endlessly, until the doors fall off. So rather than keep sending test drivers to the concussion evaluation tent after their shifts, Toyota rigged its all-new Avalon tester to drive around the beater course on its own.
Rather than roll out the lidar-equipped crazy-expensive level 5 automation package Toyota has had for a few years under final development, Toyota just built a crude robot to apply steering and throttle. The company says it used “a combination of computers, actuators, levers, other mechanicals, and a lot of engineering know-how.”
“Once we had the physical components in place, we started working on the GPS-guided path control,” explained Don Federico, group manager for Toyota’s VPD team. “Traditional in-car global positioning systems are accurate to about four-meters. Our system and control accuracy needed to be far greater to keep the test car on the narrow track at high speeds and to get accurate test results, especially while getting bounced around by potholes.” The result was a system that can drive the Avalon around the course with an accuracy of within two-centimeters.
In addition to sparing employees from being beaten up all day in a test car, and having to switch drivers every half hour to keep them from bugging-out, Toyota says the test cycles are now only limited by the car’s fuel capacity.