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Chrysler’s automated test track provides lots of bumps, but fewer pains

December 11, 1996

CHELSEA, Mich. (AP) _ Chrysler Corp. expects its new automated test track to shorten the time it takes to get new cars and trucks into production and, with robots in control, to eliminate the aches and boredom test drivers have long endured.

The track is the only one of its kind in the United States. Cars and trucks are driven over the 1.3-mile oval by computerized robots whose movements are controlled by wires and electronic gear buried in the track. It’s the same technology being tested for so-called ``smart highways.″

Officials showed off the high-tech track Tuesday at the Chrysler Proving Grounds west of Detroit, and said they were about to begin using it as a regular part of preproduction testing.

The ``driverless″ track, called the automated durability road, cost nearly $11 million to develop. But it should reduce the length of body-chassis durability tests to two weeks from the six weeks for conventional tests.

That is significant as automakers compete to get new vehicles into production under the current industry low of about two years. As recently as the late 1980s, Chrysler’s development cycle was about five years.

``You want to get your product to market faster,″ said Jeff Zyburt, program manager for the track. ``To do that, you have to get feedback to your engineers faster.″

Like any other road used to test the durability of a car and its parts, Chrysler’s new track is full of cobblestones, potholes, trenches and bumps. It takes only about 2,500 miles of travel on the track to equal the effect of 100,000 miles of normal driving.

But with automation, testing can be conducted 24 hours a day and with more consistency: A robot won’t be tempted to slow down or swerve to avoid a deep pothole. Chrysler’s human drivers say they’re happy to relinquish the task.

Driver-mechanic Mike Gradowski said a six-hour shift on Chrysler’s old track tested the endurance of the driver as well as the car. ``It beats you to death,″ he said. ``It’s a rough ride.″

A robot-chauffeured drive in a foreign-market Chrysler Neon confirmed the new track is just as severe. As the little car moved from smooth pavement onto potholes and cobblestones at 25 mph, it shuddered and bounced violently.

Chrysler hopes to begin using the track for testing of prototypes for 1999 model-year vehicles.

The company expects the track to save about $3 million a year in direct costs, such as maintenance and labor. But intangible savings from speeding development time and reduced wear and tear on drivers may be worth more, said Bernard Robertson, vice president of engineering technologies.

The track has not been without glitches. It took about three years to build and perfect it, and problems still crop up. During Tuesday’s demonstration, a van had to be sidelined so its robot could be recalibrated.

Chrysler decided to install a guardrail after the track was built, an acknowledgement that things can go wrong with an automated system. For example, after the track was installed, freezing weather caused the buried transponders to pop out of the heaving concrete.

``As good as we think we are, it’s the things we don’t know that are really bothering us,″ Zyburt said.

Partly as a result of its own research in developing the track, Chrysler is not a booster of automated public highways. Millions of dollars in government and industry money is being poured into research to develop smart highways, but many problems remain.

``It takes a very, very tightly controlled environment to make this work,″ Robertson said.

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