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Rough Road Test – 2019 Toyota Avalon

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When it comes to potholes, Toyota lets a robot take the wheel testing 2019 Avalon

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For the consumer market Toyota, along with other automotive manufacturers, is working hard to develop and deliver autonomous vehicle (aka driverless) products in the near future.  In a parallel effort, Toyota has developed an automated technology for testing and evaluating new vehicles – including the new 2019 Avalon arriving later this year – in what they call rough-road durability testing.

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When they say rough road, they mean everything up to – and including – potholes.  There are potholes in road surfaces all over the country, but nowhere like the roads up north in places like Michigan where the legends of potholes swallowing cars and trucks are told and retold year after year.  For those who have not lived it, there are potholes that do swallow cars and trucks.

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In fact, our personal record is hitting a series of potholes a few miles south of Detroit, a few years back that, blew three of our four tires and destroying the mag-style wheels in the process.  It took three days and about $2,500 to get the suspension repaired and the tires and wheels replaced. Fortunately, we had maintained control of the vehicle and was able to bring it to a stop without hitting other vehicles – avoiding probable damage to other vehicles and injuries to persons.

So, it is no wonder that automotive manufacturers spend considerable time testing new vehicles for rough-road durability to be sure that vehicle design and road handling mechanics are sufficient to mitigate damaging effects from rough roads and possible injuries to persons.  All manufacturers have some form of a rough road testing course available at their test tracks.  A couple of tracks we are familiar with in Michigan have actually named certain stretches of those rough road course for well-known Detroit area roads infamous for their potholes.

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Toyota has such a course in Michigan that the company specifically engineered with potholes, dips and other defects precisely placed along the track surface. These conditions inflict all the road-induced punishment that the average vehicle encounters during its lifetime into a single, bone-jarring evaluation.

Can you imagine being the test driver for that evaluation?  Well, don’t bother to apply.  Toyota will be using a uniquely designed automated technology to test and evaluate in the future.  They know the human touch is key during Toyota’s vehicle development process- especially when fine-tuning ride handling, comfort, and other sensory aspects, but there are times when that hands-on, human touch isn’t always the best solution. Rough-road durability testing is one of those processes.

Toyota has such a course in Michigan that the company specifically engineered with potholes, dips and other defects precisely placed along the track surface. These conditions inflict all the road-induced punishment that the average vehicle encounters during its lifetime into a single, bone-jarring evaluation. Can you imagine being the test driver for that evaluation? Well, don’t bother to apply. Toyota will be using a uniquely designed automated technology to test and evaluate in the future. They know the human touch is key during Toyota’s vehicle development process- especially when fine-tuning ride handling, comfort, and other sensory aspects, but there are times when that hands-on, human touch isn’t always the best solution. Rough-road durability testing is one of those processes.

In the past, engineers and technicians tasked with performing the evaluations were subjected to a very uncomfortable ride as they continuously circled the pothole-filled track. The human role in this test, however, wasn’t to provide feedback on handling characteristics, but to simply drive the vehicle at specific speeds – maintaining control – over the horribly bumpy course. They would do this repeatedly, day-after-day, until the vehicle accumulated the necessary mileage for evaluation.

Because having a human behind the wheel wasn’t critical to this specific test, Toyota engineers thought that an automated system would be very beneficial and – for the new Avalon – they invited the new robot to take the wheel. They found that the robot behind the wheel got the test results for evaluation with greater overall safety, efficiency and reduced test times.

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Automated not Autonomous  

Toyota says to not let the term ‘automated’ mislead us. While this test vehicle is indeed “self-driving”, it was uniquely designed for testing purposes using a combination of computers, actuators, levers, other mechanicals, and a lot of engineering and automation know-how.

In fact, it is a very different from autonomous driving.  The system does not utilize any of Avalon’s many advanced driver assistance or navigation features, nor any of the advanced LIDAR, sensors, and cameras used by the autonomous vehicles being developed by Toyota Research Institute (TRI).

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“When our vehicle performance development (VPD) team began looking at testing for the 2019 Avalon, they developed a system that adapted and improved existing technology to allow the car to automatedly navigate around the course,” said Avalon chief engineer Randy Stephens. “This not only saved the engineers and technicians from having to endure the grueling ride, it also provided a more accurate test cycle.”

While connecting components that could remotely start, shift, steer and stop the Toyota flagship vehicle during testing was a challenge, getting it to navigate accurately was an even bigger obstacle.

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“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.”

After the navigation infrastructure was complete, the VPD team developed path control software allowing the Toyota R&D robot to drive a set course with an accuracy of within two-centimeters. The entire test, which stretches thousands of kilometers, was conducted and monitored by engineers and technicians in a nearby control room without the need for humans to physically occupy the vehicle through the harsh testing conditions.

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Aside from the benefit of higher accuracy and repeatable patterns, the robot has also allowed the team to test for longer cycles with a shortened elapsed time from start to finish.  Before installing the automated system, the test would have to be interrupted every 30-40 minutes to swap drivers. With the robot behind the wheel, the test cycles were only limited by fuel capacity.

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The system was proven during Avalon development.  Toyota says they now plan to use it during all future North American vehicle development cycles as they expand its use from the current Toyota North American R&D headquarters in Michigan to other Toyota R&D facilities.

The 2019 Toyota Avalon arrives later this spring.  To learn more about Avalon, visit https://www.toyota.com/upcoming-vehicles/avalon/ .

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