DEARBORN and LOMMEL, Belgium – Ford engineers know that not all roads are created equal. Some are pockmarked with potholes. Others simply consist of merciless off-road-like tracks. Only a blessed few roads around the world are kind to the vehicles driving over them.
Engineers know that too many drivers speed over four-inch-deep potholes or take turns too fast on cobblestone roads.
To ensure its vehicles can withstand such driving behavior, engineers at Ford’s Lommel Proving Ground in Belgium and Michigan Proving Ground in the United States test vehicles for all global markets.
Several types of road conditions are simulated including moderately rough roads such as those in Europe and North America and severely rough roads like those in emerging markets, taking into account that weather conditions can make these roads even worse.
With much of Europe having been gripped by two bitterly cold winters in succession and public spending cuts leaving little money for surface repairs there and in the U.S., motorists on both continents are driving into spring on roads scarred by potholes and damaged surfaces.
Yet Ford drivers can rest assured their vehicles are built to cope, thanks to the rigorous testing and development processes established for chassis and suspension systems.
Ford proving grounds are no smooth ride
All new Ford models are put through a tough testing and development process to ensure they not only offer class-leading levels of ride comfort for occupants but are easily capable of withstanding the loads placed upon components by damaged road surfaces.
Ford’s Lommel Proving Ground subjects new vehicles to a variety of highly demanding road surfaces and features some 50 miles of test track, many of which are designed specifically to put suspension systems to the ultimate test.
“We have created some of the worst potholes in Europe on our own test track. If our cars can pass these tests, then they can cope with almost anything they encounter on public roads,” said Eric-Jan Scharlee, technical specialist for Durability Testing at Lommel Proving Ground. “You name the road surface, we have it at our proving ground.”
Both Lommel and Michigan Proving Ground feature replicated real-life road surfaces from around the world. Visitors to the facility in Belgium, for instance, may be surprised to find road signs indicating they have traveled to France, the U.K. and U.S., all within less than half a mile, but it is through such painstaking re-creation of real road surfaces from across the globe that Ford is able to deliver the products that meet and exceed the requirements of real-world drivers.
However, alongside these simulated real-world surfaces are artificial testing potholes designed to place controlled loads on Ford vehicle suspension components and allow Ford engineers to measure the forces and demands placed on cars as they pass through them.
“We use two types of test tracks at Ford to re-create the loads customers are seeing on public roads,” said Scharlee. “One type simulates actual public roads, such as Lower Dunton Road in Essex, U.K., while the other comprises a variety of potholes that have been artificially constructed to mimic different driving conditions.”
The standard is repeated at Michigan Proving Ground: “We go over gravel. We go over cobblestone. We go full-throttle. We shake things up,” said Dan Coleman, manager of Global Durability Process in Dearborn, Mich.
Ford develops suspension testing for global customer requirements
To re-create realistic road conditions, Ford engineers survey drivers of every vehicle segment in different parts of the world asking them to rate the roads they drive on and how they use their vehicles.
Then they create a statistical profile of the driver, the type of roads the driver uses, and his or her driving habits – and apply it to a durability test cycle at the respective proving ground.
Using this data, engineers can extrapolate how much load is likely to be placed on the vehicle over the course of its lifetime, which tells them how much the vehicle needs to be able to withstand.
“The challenge for a suspension system is when it exits the pothole,” said Simon Mooney, test engineer for Road Load Data at Dunton Technical Centre in Essex. “The impact can be like hitting a curb. We test all the wheel and tire sizes that we produce for our vehicles to their limit, so we’re confident they can cope.”
With Ford dedicated to producing global vehicles, testing procedures and requirements at proving grounds around the world are commonized.
Rigorous testing using high-tech equipment
Chassis and suspension testing for passenger cars is conducted in two phases, with the first phase designed to simulate the extreme demands placed on the vehicle’s suspension and major structures over the course of its lifetime. During the second phase the emphasis shifts to the entire vehicle, including high speed and rural road driving simulations.
During these tests, high-tech equipment is used to record the loads and strains placed upon suspension components. “We use specially instrumented wheels on the car that measure the force and corresponding moments in three directions,” says Mooney. “On some vehicles, there are various sensors totaling some 200 channels through which to get the data.”