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By Jim Kerr

It now takes about two years for some vehicle manufacturers to bring a new vehicle from the initial design stage to the showroom floor. When you consider the number of parts that need to be created, the complexity of assembling them into a vehicle, and the safety and emissions testing that vehicles must undergo before being produced, two years is an amazingly short period of time.

During that time, vehicles are tested to simulate years of use in all types of driving conditions. Let’s take a look at one vehicle, the 2010 Ford Taurus, to see how the engineers and test drivers take the vehicle to the limits and beyond.

Ford has many test centres around the world, including a Cold Weather test centre in Thompson, Manitoba, but two facilities near Ford Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan are capable of performing almost any kind of testing. These centres are the Dearborn Development Centre in Dearborn and the Michigan Proving Grounds near Romeo, Michigan. At these two centres, vehicles can be tested at high and low speeds over any kind of road surface including off-road courses, subjected to salt and mud baths, undergo emissions testing, and crash testing. It was at these facilities that the redesigned 2010 Taurus received its “torture testing” to find and correct weaknesses before the car was driven by the public.

The Taurus body was road tested for hundreds of thousands of kilometres. During the testing, the body was placed on a giant “paint mixer” that shakes and twists the body rapidly so engineers could locate and fix points that caused rattles or squeaks. As well, the vehicle was driven over a variety of road surfaces that simulate curbs, railroad tracks, ditches and potholes to test its suspension and body flex.

At the Michigan Proving Grounds, Ford uses several “test tracks”, each about 500 metres long, to punish the vehicles. One track has alternating high and low waves to twist the body out of shape. Another has evenly spaced blocks like railroad ties to “bounce” the vehicle severely. Another has diagonally placed barriers to test directional stability and another track has smaller high frequency bumps to “vibrate” the vehicle to pieces. I have driven vehicles over these tracks and have great admiration for the test drivers who do it on a regular basis. Even a couple passes were enough to loosen fillings and make me wish I had worn a kidney support belt. These tracks are much tougher than anything you will find on the roads and vehicles that pass have to be tough.

On another part of the test facility, vehicles are driven down a long covered pit where they drive through a salt water solution repeatedly, blasted down gravel roads and baked in a high humidity building to test corrosion resistance. The Taurus was tested 24 hours a day for a period that simulates 10 years of severe weather exposure. Testing rust proofing ensures the vehicle will look good for many, many years.

While many drivers stay on paved roads, some travel on gravel roads. To find paints that would resist chips and scratches, Ford engineers shot the Taurus with a “gravel gun” to simulate the blasting paint finishes receive on our roads.

Steep incline starts, high speed stability testing, road courses to test steering and suspension inputs and skid pads to test both dry and wet road stability are all tests done at the test centres, but not all testing is done on the track. Ford’s environmental chamber enabled the engineers to test the Taurus at extreme temperatures. From –40C cold soaks to +82C hot soaks, the Taurus was put through its paces, verifying system operation and control functions at the extremes.

Components are tested too: robots test seats and materials by entering and exiting the seats thousands of times. Robotic arms open and close doors for days, simulating 10 years of real life use, and these tests are done at both the +82C and –40C test limits to ensure things will last.

To those of us on the outside, automotive test facilities look like wonderful places to drive cars and have some fun. To the engineers and test drivers who work on vehicles such as the Taurus, the test facilities are an important tool where they can push vehicles to the limits and beyond in a very short and controlled time frame. This enables them to build vehicles that will last when they travel on real roads.

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