Tuesday, May 23, 2006

GM puts autos to the test

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

GM puts autos to the test

Simulating snow, heat and slick, hairpin curves

New Milford test lab puts vehicles through climate, terrain extremes, without shipping them at an expense.

Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News

MILFORD -- It may be months before Metro Detroiters experience subzero temperatures again, but inside a new $50 million lab at General Motors Corp.'s Milford proving grounds, engineers can now switch from sweat to chills in mere hours.

The automaker on Monday dedicated a new state-of-the-art vehicle testing facility that can create the severest of weather conditions -- from arctic blasts with temperatures at 40 degrees below zero, to stifling desert heat with temperatures as high as 130 degrees.

It is one of the most sophisticated development facilities for testing engines and transmissions for cars and trucks in the world, GM says.

With the 40,000-square-foot facility, the automaker hopes to take some much-needed giant steps and bring new engines and transmissions to market sooner, while spending considerably less on product development.

For example, engineers can now see how driving conditions such as icy roads or extreme humidity affect engine performance, and view the results immediately, without having to ship vehicles to testing destinations such as Canada or Arizona.

"It reduces cost," said Dan Hancock, vice president of engineering operations for GM Powertrain.

GM lost $10.6 billion last year and is in the midst of a major restructuring of its struggling North American operations.

One major focus is to develop lighter, more fuel-efficient powertrains across a smaller family of engines and transmissions. For one, GM has been slower than some rivals in introducing six-speed automatic transmissions that can boost fuel efficiency, as well as more powerful four-cylinder and V-6 engines that don't sacrifice fuel economy.

For the 2007 model year, GM is introducing 19 new or significantly redesigned engines and transmissions, including a new hybrid system and a fuel-saving V-6 engine.

Using computers and customized software at the new test site, GM has created one of the most advanced dynamic road simulators used in the auto industry. GM engineers have mapped nearly two dozen mountain and desert roads where customer vehicles are test driven. Climate conditions along with road grades and other conditions have been programmed into computers.

The computer-simulated roads can be "played back" as test vehicles are driven on them. And any of the road conditions can be digitally modified to simulate each of the four seasons, on a single day, if needed.

"As a consumer, you want to hear the transmission shift smoothly whether its 20 degrees or 105 degrees temperature," said Karla Berger, a technical assistant at GM.

The facility will help GM engineers develop and validate future powertrain products by allowing testing currently completed on the road to be executed in a controlled, repeatable and climatically robust laboratory environment.

Behind the sliding steel door of dynamic chamber room 35S, 48-inch rollers in the floor can move back and forth and simulate a highway drive, for example.

Adjustable floor tracks can fit different size vehicles, from tiny compacts to hulking Hummer SUVs. A wind tunnel can blast air up to 100 mph. And special ceiling lights can intensely beam to simulate the hottest desert sun.

In addition, engineers will be able to test any type of emissions levels in gasoline, ethanol or diesel fuel, allowing the automaker to better respond to government regulations that vary by country and state, such as environmentally conscious California.

"We have the ability to provide year-round climatic and altitude testing, which greatly improves our vehicle development time," said Hancock, adding the new lab could help cut development time by 4 to 5 months.

You can reach Josee Valcourt at (313) 222-2575 or jmvalcourt@detnews.com.


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