How Automotive Proving Grounds Work

Image Gallery: Concept Cars Proving grounds give General Motors the space it needs to test (in private) experimental vehicles, like this 1954 gas turbine-powered vehicle, the XP-21 Firebird. See more pictures of concept cars.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There's a good chance that you drive (or at least ride in) a car every day. You may have a family that rides in that car with you. And chances are that you trust that car to keep you and your family safe. Even under unusual driving conditions -- weird weather, high speeds, bumpy roads, accidents -- you expect your car to respond well and protect you and your loved ones. After all, the manufacturer has advertised the car as having certain capabilities and being safe to drive.

But how, exactly, does the manufacturer know that? How do the people who built your car know exactly what conditions it can stand up to? Did they drive it through all possible road conditions under all possible circumstances just to be sure?

Well, yes, they did. Before a car is put on the market, it has to be tested in extreme conditions to make sure that no manufacturing defects or design miscalculations will cause it to be unsafe or behave in unpredictable ways. Every now and then, of course, we hear of a car being recalled because of some unexpected defect, like sudden acceleration or exploding on impact, but these things are quite rare. Most cars behave exactly the way they're supposed to, at least the great majority of the time.

Where do manufacturers test their cars to be sure they work as advertised? Almost every major auto manufacturer has an automotive proving ground, a place where they can take cars and put them through paces, testing them rigorously against extreme and varying conditions at different speeds with varying passenger loads. These proving grounds have a long history, dating back the better part of a century. Some of the most colorful episodes in automotive history have taken place at these testbeds of automotive technology, but most of us will never know about them.

So, where exactly are these proving grounds and what do the automakers do there? This isn't exactly a secret. Nonetheless, most manufacturers don't go out of the way to let people know what goes on in their private testing facilities. Volkswagen even likes to think that its test track is secret (but we know better). In the rest of this article, we'll look at the history of automotive proving grounds and just what it is that companies from GM to Fiat do there.