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How Automotive Proving Grounds Work


A Visit to an Automotive Proving Ground
Crash test dummies sit on display at General Motors' new $10 million crash testing center in Milford, Mich. GM announced that rollover air bags will be standard equipment in all its vehicles by 2012.
Crash test dummies sit on display at General Motors' new $10 million crash testing center in Milford, Mich. GM announced that rollover air bags will be standard equipment in all its vehicles by 2012.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A typical automotive proving ground looks like a combination of a military base and an amusement park. From the air, a facility like GM's Milford Proving Ground consists of loops and whorls, straight lines and circles, as though it were a neighborhood that had been designed by a drunken suburban planner. But don't take our word for it. Take a look at it yourself on Google Maps. That big black mass in the upper right is GM's Black Lake vehicle dynamics testing facility, which looks exactly like its namesake -- a jet black lake of asphalt. Closer up, it can appear almost as wet as a lake. Sprinklers are used to water down the surface to test the behavior of vehicles on slippery, low-friction surfaces.

This is the place to go if you want to see cars tested to destruction. (Test vehicles are retired from service when they get too beat up to drive.) It's also the place to come if you want to drive as well as the car testers do. GM instructors teach a course in advanced driving skills at the facility, where you can learn how to get an out-of-control skid back under control or how to deal with an unexpected tire blowout. An obstacle course features just about every hazard that a car is likely to handle under anything resembling normal use, right down to hills, a gravel pit and a phony railroad that crosses the driver's path.

Several test tracks are available. There's the Oval Track, the Circle Track, the North/South Straightaway and the East/West Straightaway, all of which look exactly like their names imply. The Seven Sister course is short yet features seven curves, which test the ability of a car to take tight corners without going out of control or running off the roadway.

There are several special testing facilities. The Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness Laboratory (VSCL) lets GM test car rollover and the effectiveness of air bags. In one test, cars run along a corkscrew ramp, do a mid-air flip and crash land. (Don't try this at home.) Mostly, though, the tests consist of smashing cars at high speeds against solid walls. Needless to say, this is where the crash tests dummies hang out, including one that specifically simulates a pregnant woman. Its name is the Maternal Anthropomorphic Measurement Apparatus version 2B -- or just MAMA2B.

Don't go to the Milford Proving Grounds to catch a glimpse of upcoming GM cars, though. The vehicles are often deliberately disguised, wrapped in plastic or wearing masks on their front ends so that their lines aren't visible. This prevents paparazzi from the auto press (or just nosy gearheads) from snapping photos of the cars before GM officially announces them.

The GM Milford Proving Grounds is only one of many such proving grounds around the United States and the world, of course. Most others, however, have similar equipment, tracks and facilities, with variations. For instance, Volkswagen's testing facility in Ehra Lessien, Germany, has a straight track so long that, when viewed from one end looking toward the other, it seems to disappear over the horizon. Volkswagen likes to pretend that its proving grounds are secret, but you can look at it from the air via the Web. Fiat's Circuito di Balocco track in Balocco, Italy, was designed for testing Alfa Romeos, but it's now open to other automakers with vehicles to test and also can be used for auto racing.

These proving grounds are home to some of the wildest automobile action on earth. But it's all done in the name of making cars safer and more secure for ordinary people to drive.

For more information about automotive safety and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


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