By Jim Kerr
Dearborn, Michigan – Eighty-one years ago, it consisted of two grass runways with floodlights for night landings. North America’s first modern airport was owned by Henry Ford and situated right next to his research and manufacturing facilities. Today, the 365-acre site is still one of the most modern in the world, but now it’s called the Dearborn Development Center.
Airplanes no longer land there, but researchers, engineers and test
drivers now pilot cars and trucks on the asphalt surfaces, sometimes at
speeds faster than those vintage airplanes.
The Dearborn Development centre is as crucial to Ford’s product development as the airstrip was in the past. Being situated right next
to the buildings where product developers are working on future Ford
vehicles and behind secure fencing, it enables a researcher or team to
quickly evaluate what they have been working on. Instead of loading a
vehicle into an enclosed trailer and transporting it, test equipment and staff to Ford’s Romeo Proving Grounds, which are an hour and a half away each way, the vehicle can now be evaluated at the Development Center and quickly returned to the shop for more changes. Romeo Proving Grounds still play an important roll in vehicle testing but the short turn around time of the Dearborn Development Centre will reduce the time it takes Ford to bring a vehicle to market by twelve to fourteen months. That’s a significant saving when you consider it can take a manufacturer three to four years to develop a new vehicle.
The Development Centre is divided into several parts. At the heart of
the test facility is a control tower, just like at an airport. All
vehicles entering, departing and using the facility are in radio contact with the control tower as it regulates vehicle movement. To increase safety in a potentially dangerous environment, every driver on the facility is certified in one of four levels. Level one certification is a basic orientation to the centre, while Level 2 certification is required for anyone doing testing. Level 3 certification is for handling and performance evaluators driving at speeds less than 85 MPH and Level 4 certification is for expert drivers who test at high speeds or conduct high risk manoeuvres. With the implementation of driver certification, there has been a 93% reduction in major accidents since 1999. Driver training works even for experts.
Fifty-five acres of flat asphalt make up the Vehicle Dynamics test area. Forty-three acres of that space is for dry testing, where a vehicle can be driven in different radius circles or through a pylon-marked course. Lateral grip, balance, acceleration, braking and steering response can be tested in a safe environment where the vehicle can be pushed to its limits at lower speeds. Exceed those limits and the vehicle will simply slide out of control until it stops on the flat surface.
Twelve acres of the Vehicle Dynamics test area is dedicated to wet surface testing. Water is pumped at a rate of 2000 gallons per minute
through a sprinkler system onto one edge of the surface and flows evenly across the quarter-mile distance. The surface looks absolutely level but has a three-quarter percent grade to enable even water flow across the surface. This translates into a height difference of nine feet from one edge to the other. Drains, flush mounted on the lower edge of the surface, collect the water so it can be recycled.
A low speed test track forms the circumference of the test facility. It
is oval shaped with an inward curve on one side and several different
radius corners on one end of the oval. At 2.6 miles in length, this
track can be used for endurance testing and powertrain performance at
normal driving speeds.
A high speed test track, 2.5 miles long, mirrors the shape of the low
speed track but has banked corners to allow higher speeds in corners
without increasing steering loads. This track remains unchanged in shape but was repaved with billiard-table smooth asphalt. Powertrain
performance, lane change manoeuvres, NVH, braking and high-speed
stability can be tested at speeds up to 120 mph. Four miles of
additional guardrails help maintain safety at high speeds.
A large portion of the test facility is used for the Steering and
Handling course. This area has many paved roads that connect to each
other in loops so that many different configurations of test roads can
be evaluated. Large sweeping curves, tight decreasing radius corners,
whoop-de-do hills (both on straightaways and on corners) and switchbacks are used to evaluate vehicle steering system response, ride quality, handling characteristics on corners and hills and turn-in
characteristics. Everything related to suspension turning and steering
such as shock absorbers, spring stiffness, tire design, tire pressures
and steering effort are evaluated. The steering and handling course is
nearly identical to Ford’s test tracks in Belgium and Arizona so now
engineers half way around the world can evaluate vehicles in a
consistent setting. I found the course fun to drive, but maintaining the consistency necessary for accurate evaluations was best left to
In one corner of the facility there is a small area called the World
Roads. Twenty lanes duplicate actual road surfaces from around the world so vehicles can tested for all road conditions. Everything from
cobblestones to paving bricks, from Belgium to California roads can be
The final part of the test track but not the final part of the facility
is the .8-mile straightaway. Sitting in the middle of the facility, this was the original airport runway but now has very high-banked hairpins at each end to that a driver can enter the straightaway already at speeds up to 70 mph. Acceleration, braking, wind noise and powertrain operation can be tested here.
As part of the Development Centre, there are buildings where crash
safety test facilities, wind tunnel testing and the Product Review
centre are located. Everything is on one site, located right next to the research labs.
During construction of the Dearborn Development Centre, Ford was able to open an oxbow on the nearby Rouge River that had been closed off in 1972 to help control flooding and pollution. This has restored natural
habitat for wildlife and allows recreational use of the river. Other
environmental efforts included using 500,000 tons of recycled concrete
from old Interstate highways to build the new facility instead of having this concrete end up in local landfills. Finally, there is a two million gallon storm water detention basin built under the Product Review Centre building to catch rainwater and then slowly release it into the sewer so that heavy rains don’t overload city sewer systems.
It cost $43 million to transform the previous facility into the state of the art evaluation site the Development Centre is today. Having had the opportunity to drive a few vehicles on it’s various surfaces, it is easy to see the benefit it provides. Now if I could only have that 12 acre wet vehicle dynamics area in my back yard!