Proving grounds still important in simulated world

Automakers go to extremes to test vehicles in conditions few customers will ever have to experience

Published: February 27, 2012, 5:00 PM

As much as computers and simulations have aided the vehicle design process in terms of reducing costs and lead-times, good old seat-of-the-pants testing still plays an important role. Manufacturers continue to construct and improve on test tracks, which have proven to be an indispensable tool in developing and evaluating everything from drivetrain components to entire vehicles.

In this day of heightened consumer expectations, record initial quality levels and government-mandated emission, fuel economy and crash standards, the price of a mistake is too high to risk.

And in today’s ultra-competitive market, where brand loyalty is but a distant memory, manufacturers can no longer afford to let the customer find the fault and the dealer fix it. A simple problem that buyers may have been unhappy but put up with in the past, can now become a marketing disaster.

Test tracks play various roles. The encompass the usual hot- and cold-testing facilities, endurance and emission tests, suspension workouts and performance parameters. These facilities are also called proving grounds – for very good reason – they verify or validate what designers and engineers have done in the office, what computer simulation said would work in the field.

Or as is often the case, they show that labs and streams of data sometimes don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to real world conditions. Test tracks allow manufacturers to stress components and systems to the breaking point and discover design flaws before the vehicle makes it into consumer hands.

Test tracks have to be located so as to provide the conditions sought by the engineers. Obviously, hot weather testing has to be done in the south and cold testing in the north (or way, way to the south!).

It is possible to have ovens or refrigerated garages anywhere – but these are stationary and obviously not as suitable as being able to drive the vehicle in the desired ambient conditions.

Test tracks are used primarily to evaluate new vehicles and systems so have to be remote to discourage prying eyes. Yet they have to be accessible enough to enable people and materials from the design and engineering labs to get in and out. Often an airstrip is a necessary component. But most test tracks also require dozens if not hundreds of supporting engineers and drivers and thus have to be situated near local towns where these potential employees live.

In North America two of the most popular spots for test facilities are Arizona and northern Canada. Both have plenty of real estate away from large population centrer.

The weather in Arizona ranges from hot to really hot with very little rain. The weather in northern Canada is far less hospitable and the locals say there are two seasons – winter and construction. Yet both have major roadways running nearby or through them and are accessible by plane.

In Europe cold testing is most often done in northwest Germany or the Scandinavian countries and hot testing in Spain or the Middle East. Ironically when the weather is decent they shut down!

In hot-weather locations when it cools down in the winter or in the case of cold sites, when it warms up in summer, the facilities are usually mothballed, the locals stay home to tend gardens or go fishing and the engineers and technicians return to civilization.

The only activity on site is maintenance and construction in preparation for another season of ugly weather when the locals once again get a paycheck and the majority of factory folks are new, "enduring" their test track rotation.

The amount and variety of testing done at these facilities is astonishing and often not considered when we buy a new vehicle. Everything from the engine and transmission to the glove box door is used and abused until something breaks and then altered accordingly before initial production.

Many people think of test tracks as locations where lucky people get to drive at high speed all day and tear around ovals and road courses wearing out tires and themselves in the process. That does happen – but for a very small percentage of the time.

There are still high-speed runs, G-loading track tests and other exciting activities, but new engines and suspensions are most often tested back at the factory hidden away in regular production vehicles – or in dyno labs.

The normal scenario at a hot or cold test facility involves eight-hour shifts doing repetitive chores exactly the same, time-after-time and recording results and impressions in a book for the engineers to study.

The goal is often to put the vehicles on the road – public roads – in real world conditions for as many hours/days/weeks as it takes to simulate a vehicle lifetime – and determine what fails, when and why.

The drivers meet early in the day (or at night if the vehicles are to be hidden from prying cameras and eyes) and are assigned vehicles and tests. A typical scenario would have the driver open and close doors (all doors) and trunk 5-10 times checking for latch action, sound and feel, seals and handles, logging any maladies.

Once inside they will raise and lower windows, sun visors, glovebox doors a set number of times – again the object is to simulate in a few weeks several years of activity. All controls are operated repeatedly including wipers, horn, heat/vent/air etc. In an average two-shift day an ashtray or cup holder may be pulled out and pressed in hundreds of times.

Then it is time to drive. In one of several locations either on the test track or public roads. In either case the engineers have plotted a route and routine which the drivers must follow exactly and repeatedly looking for particular issues assigned to them.

On the test track the route may include accelerating to 100 km/hr and braking to a stop dozens of times in succession checking engine, transmission and brakes. It could involve driving over and then backing over a raised section of road at different angles looking for chassis flex, squeaks or rattles.

On public roads, the vehicles follow a pre-assigned route consisting of different loops, time after time stopping for notes each lap. Once again, the test drivers are looking for things the buyer might experience when the vehicle makes it to market.

A variety of local drivers are employed – both sexes, big and small, young and old – trying to determine any design faults. Maybe a certain door handle or wiper switch looked good on the drawing boards but broke long nails or can’t be operated easily by large fingers or with gloves.

Plastic has been a boon to vehicle manufacturer because it has the life expectancy of nuclear waste, is light, inexpensive and can be easily shaped. But it certainly has its problems when it comes to squeaks and rattles, as well as a tendency to change shape/size/properties in extreme temperature conditions.

The tester in both hot and cold weather facilities must "work’ various systems looking for signs of failure or noise – often before a supplier gets a contract. In other words, when Company X submits a bid to supply Car Y with glovebox door hinges that are lighter, cheaper and more efficient than currently used, it’s off to the hot and cold test sites for a few months each.

Will it survive tens of thousands of opening/closing cycles in all conditions? If so, the vehicle manufacturer may consider switching suppliers – or at least telling the current supplier the bar has been raised and the price dropped.

Door, hood, trunk seals and fuel door covers are a few of the minor systems we don’t think of that have to be tested to death – literally.

Other areas we may not think of are sound and sight checks. Maybe the component worked fine in the lab or when partially assembled at the plant. But when installed in a vehicle, as it will be in production maybe there is a sympathetic vibration or wind-related noise that only a few people pick up on.

Maybe there is a reflection, movement or other distraction, all are logged, altered and tested again and again.

There are on and off-site tests that can be more than a little nerve-racking.

What about driving a new vehicle less than a metre behind another at speed on a slippery road in a driving snowstorm to determine if the lights, engine compartment or heating system intake become packed with snow? Or the windshield, mirrors or rear window become blocked.

Not enough snow falling from the sky? Then the lead vehicle drags a specially-designed sled behind it to stir up a snowstorm into which you drive blindly! The same test is performed at the hot facilities with driving rain or water to test affects on engine, vision or cooling system.

Or less exciting tests like letting a vehicle sit overnight in the cold or all day in the blazing sun and then getting in and measuring how long it takes for the heater or air conditioner to bring the inside temperature up or down to a certain level.

Test tracks also have a variety of road condition from Belgian blocks to simulated potholes, various curves, hills, depressions and other conditions. But the real world surrounding the facility is often more useful.

Test tracks have a certain aura, we think of the excitement of ringing the maximum performance from a new vehicle in top secret conditions. But they more often involve driving a family car at normal speeds to see how the wipers or armrest work or the defroster handles a humid day.

One thing is for sure – design problems still make it through to final production – but far less often than used to be the case. Computers and labs are great but fingers and butts may be better.