Robots that press buttons for a living, Ford and the incredible car tech you didn't know existed

This is what it takes to get ahead in the motor industry these days

Every day, cars are getting techier. Whether it's touchscreens galore, in-car internet or the inevitable arrival of our new, four-wheeled autonomous overlords on the roads, cars have become the ultimate mobile digital device.

What you might not quite realise is the scale and scope of technology that goes into even mainstream, affordable cars you can buy today. Sure, Elon Musk may claim that pricey new Teslas keep out viruses, but did you know that a humble Ford could soon sniff the air coming into the cabin and protect you from pollutants?

Nope, neither did we. Nor did we dare to dream that car brands might use robots to test the feel and function of the buttons on the dashboard. But they do.

Pedestrian sensors engaged

I took a trip to Ford's research and development centre in Aachen, Germany. Who better than Ford, the company that gave the world the Model T and democratised car ownership nearly 100 years ago, to show us the latest cutting-edge car tech for the common people?

Ford has sites like Aachen in multiple locations around the world, with thousands of people developing the latest car tech and working out how to make it all affordable. Here's what's incoming…

Button-pushing 'bots

Strewth RUTH

Let's start with a meeting with RUTH, a robot that presses buttons for a living. Yes, literally.

RUTH stands for Robotised Unit for Tactility and Haptics. It looks like a refugee from Black Mesa and the latest instalment of Valve's Portal series of robot-infested video games. Just swap RUTH for GlaDOS and it's easy to imagine a conversation that starts off insouciant but gradually slides towards sinister.

Fortunately, RUTH's job is a whole lot less murderous. As I mentioned above, it's simply to press buttons of the kind you find on the dash and doors in a car, and register the feel and sound of the clicks and clacks, ad infinitum.

What you might not have consciously thought about but will be instinctively aware of is the huge difference in perceived quality that the feel and sound of a button press can make. It's all about button travel, resistance and tone. Well of course it is.

RUTH can measure them all and, combined with feedback from humans, a model of what feels best is mapped out. Interestingly, Ford says attitudes to quality aren't universal and are in fact regional. People across the world differ in terms of what they percieve to be high quality.

Whatever, the next time you are in a Ford, press a few buttons and know that what you feel is the result of RUTH's hard work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Contributor

Technology and cars. Increasingly the twain shall meet. Which is handy, because Jeremy (Twitter) is addicted to both. Long-time tech journalist, former editor of iCar magazine and incumbent car guru for T3 magazine, Jeremy reckons in-car technology is about to go thermonuclear. No, not exploding cars. That would be silly. And dangerous. But rather an explosive period of unprecedented innovation. Enjoy the ride.