Inside the facility where Ford makes cars winter-ready
Ford engineers test effects of cold weather at Florida facility
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No matter how cold it is outside, vehicles are expected to start right away and run properly after they do. Automakers test extensively for this, and sometimes in the most surprising places. Ford, for example, goes to Florida in the middle of summer.
One of the world’s largest climatic laboratories is located within a U.S. Air Force base on the state’s Gulf coast, where the temperature inside can be adjusted from a high of 48 degrees Celsius, to a bone-chilling minus-65.
“It’s a unique opportunity to do extreme cold-weather testing,” says Rich Shimon, Ford’s technical expert for gasoline powertrain calibration. “We’re able to get 72 vehicles and 54 engineers in the chamber.” Scheduling similar tests in the company’s much smaller facilities in Michigan would take months to achieve what engineers can do in three weeks in Florida’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory.
Fuels can vary between countries and even in a country’s different regions, including octane or ethanol levels, and this can affect how a vehicle starts. Ford tests 13 different fuels at the facility and calibrates its vehicles to them. “We have complex systems such as the injectors, throttle and actuators, and there’s not necessarily one right way of doing it,” Shimon says. “We’re learning how to get the performance out of the engine, and across the environment and fuel economy (standards).”
Several types of tests are done, depending on the vehicle. Engineers have to determine if the emissions systems on diesel engines will function properly in low temperatures, and so Super Duty pickup trucks are started up and left to idle continuously, 24 hours a day, for all three weeks. Other vehicles undergo “cold soaks,” where they sit untouched in sub-zero temperatures for several hours before being started.
Almost all vehicles being tested are new models under development, but if an older model starts racking up complaints from customers or dealers related to cold-weather issues while Ford has the facility booked, the engineers will bring it in to try to duplicate the problem.
The chamber’s concrete floor is too slippery for driving tests, and models undergo outdoor road testing at Ford’s facility in Thompson, Man. However, laboratory testing is critical, because while outdoor temperatures fluctuate, the climatic chamber can be set to the exact degree and for however long it’s required.
During the three weeks in Florida, the vehicles start at 20 C and are gradually chilled to minus-40 so engineers can study how they operate at each stage. “Customers expect quick and easy starts, and our job is to make sure our vehicles do that under any conceivable condition,” Shimon says.
Cold and hot
- Florida’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory opened in 1947 to test fighter planes that didn’t always start in the cold in the Second World War.
- If engineers find a problem they try to fix it at the Florida site, but if necessary, they can continue their work at Ford’s cold chambers in Michigan.
- In addition to cold temperatures, vehicles are also tested in extreme heat at another facility.