So, you want to test a vehicle? Simple: buy a couple of thousand acres of land, get the zoning and environmental clearances, design and build facilities for every test element, install maintenance and safety teams, and you’re all set. The snag? Well, only the stratospheric costs involved. The alternative? Find a company with a proving ground capable of fulfilling every need, and ask to use it. The snag? Let’s see…
Since 1956, every US Ford model has run durability and corrosion tests at the company’s Michigan Proving Ground (MPG) in Romeo, a 90-minute drive north of Detroit. The 3,880-acre site has bred automotive history, and has for the past five years been open to external business.
Over the years, every test need that has arisen has been designed into the plentiful space. Before we begin the tour though, let one thing be made clear: only the facilities can be hired, not Ford’s know-how.
“Customers cannot run our Ford CETPs [Corporate Engineering Test Procedures], because they are our secret sauce, our proprietary tests,” says Mike Stoeckle, facility manager. “We’re more than happy to work with the customer and show them what events we have, and if we don’t have an event, tell me what you want and maybe I’ll build it. We have done that on occasion for customers.”
Starting with the basics required to use the facility, a large building houses offices, a canteen, a tire changing area, and several work bays. Hoists are available for vehicles weighing up to 20,000 lb per axle (also the maximum weight permitted on the tracks), and a range of equipment including towing dynos is also available for use. It isn’t free, but it’s there. Depending on Stoeckle’s workload, an area the size of a soccer field can be hired, if needed.
For customers who like to pack light, there is an instrumentation lab. In conjunction with Link Engineering, anything from accelerometers to data acquisition systems can be hired.
There are also several dyno chambers with different capabilities, some semi-environmental, some environmental. “I’d rather not specify how many we have, but I have enough to help you, I have excess capacity,” says Stoeckle. “If you just want mileage accumulation without drivers I can do that, I can run them all the time. If you want load profiles or a flat trac, I can do that.” We can confirm that four of the dynos are enclosed though, and there is a climate-controlled dyno in a separate building.
One of the main events is the five-mile, five-lane, high-speed oval. “The track was resurfaced and rebuilt about two-and-a-half years ago. It is in beautiful condition and is one of the best tracks you’ll ever be on,” says Stoeckle, and I have to agree about its condition.
Top speed at the oval is 180mph, but if you feel the need for speed, Stoeckle can raise the limit, provided proper safety checks are carried out, and spotters and emergency rescue staff are put in place. Given the size of the oval,
a convenient design feature is that braking pads, turnouts, and a calibration pad complete with power are all provided within, so valuable test time is not wasted driving to other parts of the facility. As Stoeckle says, “If you want to do mileage accumulations, braking evaluations, etc, on an oval track that is always maintained, I have one.”
The facility also features a 2.5-mile straightaway, which is three lanes wide, widening to five at the end. The track is due for repaving shortly as part of Stoeckle’s constant maintenance of the grounds. “There’s never a dull moment with a proving ground,” he says. “But it’s not glamorous – I’m constantly fixing culverts, dams, cracks in the road, etc. We need good discipline and maintenance to stay on top of all the events and to not let the track get away from us. Maintenance is a full-time job here for many people. I also skim the tracks so I know what the coefficient is of every surface, and ensure it is maintained.”
Going from speed to handling, there are various precision and steering evaluation ride roads with undulations and known-radius turns, and a selection of noise and NVH surfaces, including an ISO-certified half-mile loop for pass-by sound tests.
There is also a 40-acre vehicle dynamics area with low coefficient surfaces, which can be specified as dry (weather permitting) or wet, and the entire area can be partly or completely flooded, if need be. Adjacent to this zone is a secure area with four hoist bays, office space and restrooms that Ford rarely uses, which can be leased. This creates a useful private area separate from the main work areas. If more space is required, trailers can be leased.
“We also have a unique gravel vehicle dynamics area,” says Stoeckle. This eight-acre gravel area has a sublayer under it so it can be graded and predictable.
Moving on, I appreciate the need for our ride for the day, a Super Duty: the off-road facilities are as tough as they are extensive. Bumping along the 12 miles of off-road trails and a five-mile gravel route, we come across one of the newest additions to the facility, a 250-acre high-speed off-road course. In order to help preserve prototypes during such trials, the area has very few trees.
“Some customers want to simulate driving on crushed-up roads, so I have some cement from past projects that customers can use to simulate war-torn Afghanistan. Others want to get a little bit more severe and do rock crawling, so we made Boulder Canyon. This was built eight months ago, and is designed for military vehicles and projects like the F-150 SVT Raptor,” says Stoeckle.
The mud pit area was full of earthmovers, graders and backhoes, making an event to a specific design. Whether this event was for Ford or for a customer is unknown, but Stoeckle says, “If you want an off-road course developed and we don’t have anything suitable, I can build it for you. For example, I had a customer that needed to do downhill tests over a cliff for hill descent control, and we made an event for them. I’ve got a lot of off-road courses I can offer, and if you don’t see what you like, I’ve got a lot of earthmoving equipment. Will I charge you for the work? Yes, but you’re not going to get this anywhere else. I can bring in a tanker-full of water and make it wet. You tell me what to do, and I can do it.” Ford is also willing for customers who have a test event made to their specification, to have it for their exclusive use, whether for a specified period of time, or forever.
We move on to one of the most eye-catching parts of the facility, the hill routes, passing some available garages that can be accessed directly from an external road if a client wants something really private. There are a variety of grades available, including 7%, 15%, 17%, 29%, 45% and 60%, all leading up to the 1,150ft (350m) summit of Trombley Mountain, the highest point in the county. Fittingly, there is a great view of Motor City from up here.
While Ford’s facilities mean that customers can just bring a small engineering team, they will have to bring their own drivers. Stoeckle discusses why he won’t provide test drivers: “I don’t like to do that because if a customer thinks our driver ran the test wrong, whose fault is that? Is that my fault? And who eats the cost of re-running the test? What if we hit a deer during a test? Is that my fault? Do I have to pay for the prototype? I don’t want that responsibility.
“I’d love to have you rent the test facility and have your own liability for all that. So we work with our own general counsel to work on what the liability is because I don’t want to be responsible for customers’ vehicles. That’s not why I’m here.”
Read the full version of this article in the December 2010 issue of Automotive Testing Technology International